Email this review


Solid but not particularly stirring historical, from the author of an Arthurian trilogy (concluded with In Winter's Shadow, 1982). In A.D. 371, Valens is Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople. Cowardly, chariot-race-loving Theodoros, a consul at Ephesus, is disconcerted to be accused of treachery by ugly, low-born Imperial agent Festinus: Valens, it seems, is taking seriously a prophesy which states that he will be replaced by one whose name begins with Theod--. Theodoros, of course, is wholly innocent, but during the investigation the sadistic Festinus becomes enamoured of Theodoros' beautiful daughter Charis; weakly, Theodoros agrees to the marriage. Horrified, Charis--who wants to be a doctor, a profession forbidden to women--rejects the vile Festinus and, with her brother Thorion's connivance, flees to Alexandria, center of the healing arts. There she becomes Chariton ""the eunuch,"" medical student and assistant to the skilled, humane, Jewish doctor Philon. Alexandria, however, is seething with religious strife, as the powerful, popular Bishop Athanasios continues to rebuff Imperial attempts to oust him; during an interview he divines Chariton's secret but agrees not to divulge it. And an Imperial spy, the handsome Goth Athanaric, is impressed when Chariton refuses a hefty bribe to inform on Athanasios. The latter, alas, eventually dies, and Alexandria is no longer safe for Chariton; she agrees to go to Thrace to serve as an army doctor. Here, among other complications, Chariton's career comes to a head: she kills a would-be rapist; she's reunited with brother Thorion, now an Imperial governor; eventually she's revealed as a woman, but continues to practice her art; and, Finally, Athanaric beholds the real Charis, and love blossoms. An appealing drama, with a vibrant, vital backdrop, agreeable characters, and steady plotting. But, unfortunately, this was a turbulent but rather anonymous epoch in Roman history, with a succession of unmemorable Emperors, a weary procession of invading barbarian hordes, and no famous historical figures that might help fix the period in readers' minds. So the result, while well above average, lacks the drawing power of big-name notoriety.

Pub Date: Sept. 12th, 1986
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin