Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: "Imperial Purple" by Gillian Bradshaw

Even slaves are honored to work with Tyrian purple, the rarest and most expensive of dyes in Byzantium. Demetrias, who weaves silk tapestries for the emperor, is luckier than most. But the honor turns to danger when Demetrias is secretly ordered to weave an imperial cloak in dimensions she knows are not the emperor's.

The secret commission is evidence of treason, and Demetrias wants no part of it. As a slave, though, she has no choice but to follow orders. After the conspirators escape with the finished cloak, Demetrias herself is seized as evidence of the plot and dragged a thousand miles from home to the court in Constantinople.

Her husband Symeon, a state slave himself, fishes for the murex shells which give the dye its hue. When Demetrias is kidnapped by the investigators, Symeon sails his tiny boat across the sea to follow her and force the powers of the state to return her home. But it was Symeon's well-meaning attempt to protect Demetrias that revealed the conspiracyand endangered her in the first place.

4 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

After rediscovering the magnificent craftsmanship of The Wolf Hunt, I dug through my shelves until I unearthed another of Gillian Bradshaw's historical novels, Imperial Purple. (I have a memory of owning The Sand-Reckoner, which is about a young Archimedes; but where it is, I cannot say.)

Bradshaw's value to me as a writer of historical fiction--other than her tremendous skill, which is a given--is her relish in the less commonly discussed eras of history: sub-Roman Britain, the Nubian kingdoms, the English Civil War. Imperial Purple is only one of several books Bradshaw sets in the Byzantine Empire.

The lush details of life in Tyre in the fifth century AD will sweep the reader away on a sensory tide even before the novel's complex plot takes hold. This is a story about experts in their various fields: sailing, politics, military tactics, and of course weaving. (Dear reader, you may recall how much I love expert characters.) Bradshaw writes each with the confidence of an expert herself. From the first page, when she describes Demetrias weaving a single strand of gold into the eye of a tapestry figure to make it glitter with life where a lesser weaver would have overworked it with more gold and pearls, the novel is heavy with an air of veracity.

The street outside reeked indescribably of rotten shellfish, wood ash, sulfur, and stale urine--the stink of the adjacent dyeworks that brewed the famous Tyrian purple dye. Neither Demetrias nor Philotimos flinched at it. The natives of Tyre accepted the smell without question; for them, smell even more than color was purple, and purple was the source of wealth and fame, the color of power. Only God's church and the emperor could use it freely. Even the imitations of true purple, quick-fading vegetable dyes, widespread and immensely popular, were regarded by the law with suspicion. To work with the real purple, stinking though it was, could be a cause for nothing but pride.

I have come to appreciate Bradshaw's depiction of Demetrias and Symeon more and more as I grow older. Demetrias is my favorite: she is canonically asexual (a rare bird in fiction) and sex-repulsed, but struggling with her very real affection for her reluctantly-chosen husband and child. Her resignation to her status as a state slave is matched by her personal integrity. To the very extent possible, she will choose the terms of her own slavery. Watching her step into conspiracies of her own is fantastic reading.

In contast, Symeon never reconciles himself to slave status, and never accepts his own helplessness in the face of power. His hopeless love for his seemingly-indifferent wife, and his futile attempts to protect her, provide most of the emotional drive of the story. His simple, blind faith in the eventual justice of the world sometimes hurts to read--such as when he packs clothes for his kidnapped wife because "it seemed certain that, if they brought them, she would have to be found to wear them."

The weakest part of the book is their child, Meletios (or Meli.) Bradshaw fails to meaningfully depict a child's dialogue and limited perspective on the world, resorting instead to inconsistent stereotypes of children. There is not a single scene that is bettered for Meli's perspective; although his inclusion in the story overall, as a complication for Demetrias and Symeon to consider, is not without value.

Imperial Purple sprawls a bit. Unlike The Wolf Hunt, which is perfectly compact and tightly knotted together, this novel loses track of its threads a few times. There are too many levels of conspiracy going on, and too swiftly. Time spent in character development actually robs from understanding the plot at times, which is a rare flaw.

Overall, it's still a clever and perfectly enjoyable read, generally high-quality writing, but not as masterful as The Wolf Hunt. I recommend it to history buffs and lovers of intrigue.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: attempted rape, torture, scenes of suffering, stereotypical gay villain

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