Have you ever gotten to the end of a book and been so wrapped up in the main character’s world that you ran immediately to the computer to order the sequel – only to be crushed because no sequel exists? Then you have a pretty good idea of how I felt when I finished Faith L. Justice’s Selene of Alexandria.
I can’t say that I’d ever thought much about Rome’s Eastern Empire – and what eventually became the Orthodox Church – until I read SusieBookworm’s review of Selene of Alexandria. (I focused mostly on Medieval Europe during my undergraduate career, so I guess what happened in Constantinople stayed in Constantinople, if you know what I mean.)
So I was amazed to be so immediately taken in by Selene and her 5th century Egyptian Christian world. Justice blends historical characters with fictional ones seamlessly, pinning her story to historical events. The female philosopher Hypatia lived in 5th century Alexandria and ran the last Platonic academy there. So the placement of Selene, a young noblewoman who longs to become a physician, doesn’t seem as anachronistic as it might have. Selene’s family is impoverished by the Roman system of landowner fees, so she could improve her family’s fortunes with a good match. But her kind-hearted father sees her potential, and allows her to study medicine, which (predictably) leads to a host of complications.
The complications are the most interesting part of the book, actually, because Justice uses them to illustrate 5th century Egyptian society: the factionalism, the anti-Semitism, the tension between civil and religious authority. It was fascinating how Justice chronicles the rise of the Church as a form of class warfare, through which those born outside of the nobility could achieve power – and wealth. Bishop Cyril gives Cardinal Richelieu a run for his money as the pre-Machiavellian heavy, complete with a holy army of club-wielding monks to attack pagans. I was shocked to realize the cold, calculating character drawn by Justice actually goes on to become a Father of the Church, and a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions. It’s a sobering thought, but it certainly added to my interest in the book.
The love stories didn’t work as well for me as other parts of the book, however. I found it difficult to see what Selene saw in Orestes, the Roman prefect – he seemed too self-centered and crafty for someone with her altruistic impulses. The secondary love story, between her brother Phillip and the family’s Jewish maid, Rebecca, wasn’t developed well enough for me to understand the drastic decisions made at the end of the book. All in all, I felt like I was left with a bunch of cliffhangers, romance-wise – and no chance to resolve them.
Still, I loved learning about Selene’s world, and would welcome a chance to go back! So if anyone hears about a sequel to this one, let me know, okay?