The Beacon at Alexandria: Gillian Bradshaw

★★★★

In one sense, of course, the title refers to the Pharos: that great lighthouse in the harbour of Alexandria which became one of the Wonders of the World. But it has another meaning too. Alexandria is a place of possibility and hope: a vast melting pot in which different cultures and religions have coexisted for centuries. It’s a place of ideas. And Charis of Ephesus hopes it’ll be a place of freedom.

That isn’t something she’s ever had much of. As the only daughter of a wealthy Ephesian landowner in the 4th century AD, she knows perfectly well what the future has in store for her: marriage, motherhood, and the gradual erasure of her natural gifts. Charis burns for something else. Ever since childhood she’s been trying to heal things, honing her understanding of medicine by reading Hippocrates with her indulgent tutor, and pushing her curiosity to new ends. But women can’t be doctors. Then, with the arrival of the sadistic new governor Festinus, everything looks set to fall apart. Festinus’ eye falls on Charis; her lily-livered father is pressured into arranging a marriage; and suddenly Charis finds herself balanced on the edge, torn between the safety of a miserable future and the uncertainty of a dream so extraordinary that even she doesn’t believe it can work.

Charis disappears. Festinus is left fuming; her father embarrassed. Her brother Thorion and nurse Maia keep their silence. And some weeks later a young man arrives in Alexandria. He calls himself Chariton of Ephesus, a eunuch, and he wants to become a doctor. The teachers at the Temple of Serapis are initially scornful – eunuchs can’t be doctors. But Chariton turns out to be smart and capable, and he finds a friend and master in the Jewish doctor Philon, who ministers to the city’s poor. It’s a bad time to come to Alexandria. The old tolerances are fraying at the edges as the Christians begin to squabble against themselves, Arians against those of the Nicene creed, and everything rests upon the fragile health of one old man: the archbishop Athanasios. The vultures circle, waiting for him to die; he deliberates over his successor; the emperor, far to the east, waits to impose his own choice on the city; and the imperial agent Athanaric appears in Alexandria to watch and listen.

And it isn’t just the city’s peace which is teetering. The empire itself is beginning to face new threats from the Gothic tribes on its northern borders and, still further away, there are rumours of a fearsome new enemy: the nomadic Huns. The world isn’t as safe as it used to be; and Chariton, who’s become slightly too famous for his own good, longs for safety. He dreads people asking too many questions about him, because sooner or later they’ll discover the one thing that’ll prove his undoing: that, of course, he isn’t a eunuch or even a man, but Charis in disguise, obscuring not only her past but her gender in order to follow her vocation.

I hadn’t read any Bradshaw before: I know she has lots of avid readers and, since she writes about periods that interest me (the classical world; Byzantium), I’m sure I’ll be digging out more of her books. Island of Ghosts is already on my shelf. And I thoroughly enjoyed Beacon. It was written in an almost contemporary voice but it worked well: it felt fresh and lively, and I warmed to Charis as a character. Personally I always prefer books that are that little bit meatier and denser, but this was a thoroughly engaging read nevertheless. I particularly liked the fact that Charis is genuinely devoted to her work. Many authors, in writing about a girl living as a man, would throw in some romantic angst right from the beginning, and make her disguise merely an obstacle to be overcome. Bradshaw, by contrast, makes the disguise an opportunity and, for more than half the book, Charis doesn’t have much time for anything but her true passion: healing. Later on a romantic attachment does develop, but I’ll just say it’s the kind I like: an intelligent relationship, with a worthy person, handled well. Towards the end things in general start to become a little more convenient rather than plausible, but by this point I was so invested in the characters that I didn’t care and turned soppy, which doesn’t often happen (unless I’m reading Georgette Heyer).

Interestingly, this covers much the same period as Flow Down Like Silver, the book about Hypatia I read last year but haven’t yet posted about. Where that novel focuses on the philosophic ivory towers of Alexandria, Bradshaw’s book is a more human story, set among the poor and suffering, the grit and grime and blood of the physician’s craft. So yes, one to recommend to you. In return, do let me know which of Bradshaw’s other novels I should be tracking down.

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5 thoughts on “The Beacon at Alexandria: Gillian Bradshaw

  1. Helen says:

    It's good to see you posting again! I hope you've had a lovely break. I've never read anything by Gillian Bradshaw but she has been recommended to me several times and I would like to try one of her books at some point (I'll probably start with this one). The periods she writes about aren't my favourites, but her books do all sound intriguing. She also wrote a trilogy of Arthurian novels which I've been interested in reading as well.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks so much, Helen! It wasn't really a break in the end – lots of business travel, lots of work and too many other things to worry about – but I definitely feel refreshed. Do give this a go. I'd be interested to see what you make of it. Hopefully I'll get round to Island of Ghosts pretty soon, which is meant to be very good as well. I didn't know about the Arthurian novels, though… thanks for flagging those!

  3. Elaine T says:

    Trying again (WordPress doesn't like me)
    The Arthurian books were her first, and while well done, the author's youth shows, especially in the first one.

    Try THE BEARKEEPER's DAUGHTER, which I found haunting me for weeks after reading, although I hadn't though I liked it nearly that much.

    Her most recent stuff seems to be set in the English Civil War, and a friend likes it a lot. I haven' read it yet.

    I disrecommend THE HORSES OF HEAVEN for characters who I wanted to knock sense into, throughout the whole book.

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