Title: Far Away Bird
Author: Douglas A. Burton
Publisher: Silent Music Press
Publication Date: February 5, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Good historical fiction takes you out of the moment and immerses you in another time and place, surrounding you with figures about whom you’re already anxious to know more. What great historical fiction does is make you care about those figures, elevating the narrative journey from relating just the facts to embracing the human significance.
Far Away Bird, I am pleased to say, most definitely falls under the category of great, a story so enthralling that it’s easy to forget that the lives we’re embracing are real.
Part of the appeal here is the myriad ways in which Douglas A. Burton twists expectations and betrays convention, teasing a rags-to-riches romance, yet never giving into anything so generic and clichéd. It was at the beginning of the second book that I really sat up and took notice, finding the roles we expected of Theodora and her sister, Comito, to have been reversed. It is a telling observation on beauty and power, not to mention a chilling exploration of how trauma can unseat a woman from her fate.
That second book was the most interesting for me, with Theodora reclaiming her sense of self, rising above her role as a victim, and finding her way back to the morals and ideals that once led her astray. Transitioning from actress, to prostitute, to spy, to concubine, she becomes a woman to be respected and admired, a powerful figure in a world where women were not permitted to have such power. It’s not all happiness and heroism, however. She suffers physically and emotionally at the hands of the men around her, and she carries scars within her that made fade over time, but which continue to shape her. Her relationship with Justinian is the emotional fulcrum of the novel, a love that has consequences.
Perhaps the greatest praise I can heap on Burton is the way he makes the history, the politics, and the society come to life. There is a lot you need to understand to appreciate the story, but it never feels like we’re being spoon-fed or info-dumped. There are no narrative asides, no convenient speeches, no teaching moments that demand we absorb some important fact, just the nuances of the story, with the reality of Theodora’s world absorbed through her experiences.
I’ve stripped this bit of dialogue from all tags and context so as not to spoil anything, but this simple exchange sums up Far Away Bird better than I ever could:
“Did you just kiss my mother?”
“Mother? Did you agree to that?”
“Yes, I agreed to it.”
“All right, but you should give my mother flowers first.”
Considering the story began with two young women forbidden to be seen on the streets by themselves, turns once on a violent rape, and turns again on love that society cannot accept, that simple question from a child promises so much.
Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ ♀