Thursday, August 29, 2013

Battle of the Books (2): The Secret History vs Theodora

For those of you new to my Battle of the Books, I read two books of similar story, setting and/or genre and pit them against one another.  I base my judgements on the following criteria:

1. Main Character
2. Supporting Cast
3. Worldbuilding
4. Pacing
5. Plot Development
6. Plot Resolution
7. Style/Use of Language
8. Cover Art (Tiebreaker only)

Today's Byzantine Book Battle pits A Secret History by Stephanie Thornton against Theodora: Accress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy.

This match-up was a bit more challenging than I expected.  For some silly reason, I assumed that it would be far easier to draw comparisons when the story was with the exact same character and exact same storyline.  Instead, this makes it somewhat harder:  with the plot taking the (more or less) exact same trajectory, and using (more or less) the same cast, you have to rely on nitpicking to draw the lines.
1. Main Character - Thornton
Here is one huge difference right off the bat.  A Secret History is told in the first person, using Theodora's own voice.  Duffy's Theodora is told the in third person.  By using the first person, you get a clearer view of Theodora, seeing her as more impatient, impetuous and sassy.  Thornton also uses dialogue to better effect, giving a clearer characterization and letting the characters be the IN and a part of the world, rather than just occupying it.  Both authors, though, do a fine job of giving Theodora a spine and a great deal of resilience. 

2. Supporting cast -Thornton
Thornton, again, delivers with her dialogue.  By living in T's head and using more dialogue than description, the reader is given a clearer picture of the people around her.  Not all supporting characters are given the same amount of screen time, of course, but the few that are seem better fleshed out.

3. Worldbuilding - Duffy
Duffy, hands down.  Whereas Thornton's dialogue gives better opportunities to illuminate the personalities of the characters, Duffy's third person prose allows for better description of the age and the area.  For readers completely unfamiliar with the time period, Duffy gives a wider canvas on which to paint the story.  The politics, religion and culture of the time are far more clear in Duffy's version of the story.

4. Pacing - Thornton
Thornton covers all of Theodora's life in one 450-page novel.  Duffy's story goes from childhood through her being crowned Empress.  (There is a second book, The Purple Shroud, that covers the rest of her life.)  Not that covering a life at a leisurely pace is wrong, but I prefer Thornton's complete story in one volume.  There are enough series out there.

5. Plot Development -Duffy
(Possible Spoilers)
Toward the end of Thornton's story, there is a bit of a melodrama about Theodora's son, and it felt shoehorned in and awkward, as if the author was grasping for something amazing to happen to the protagonist, since her meteoric rise and ongoing challenges and victories weren't enough.  Duffy's story felt more plausible, and more like the author kept with the known sources for the root of her plot line(s). 

6. Plot Resolution - Thornton
As previously stated, Thornton's A Secret History covers a woman's entire life.  The story is wrapped up in the most logical and inevitable way there is.  Duffy's Theodora stops just at the climax of our heroine's social climb.  You can pick up the second book, but do you want to?

7. Style/Use of Language - Thornton
Duffy really likes commas.  A lot.  I am not opposed to long sentences, but it's not uncommon to see one sentence that goes on four or five printed lines in the text.  If I were listening to an audiobook, it might not make a difference.  It does make a difference when reading a printed copy, and I had to reread a single sentence to get the meaning. 

Final Score:
Thornton: 5
Duffy: 2

As another reviewer friend has stated for me, Thornton's book read a lot like Kate Quinn's novels.  If you like her style (and I really, really do), then Thornton is the clear favorite.
HOWEVER, if you like your books more descriptive and heavier on paragraphs than on spoken dialogue, you'll probably prefer Duffy's depiction of the Byzantine empress. 

If you have an idea for another Battle of the Books match-up, post your suggestions in the comments!

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