Salve, Citizen! Only the most basic of civilities today, hope you’re well, what fine weather, etc., etc.
So last week I read a book I didn’t expect to like, mostly because – brace yourselves, cupcakes – I can be a bit of a genre snob. And smack my face and call me Sally, didn’t I end up liking it. Rather a lot, actually. I think this is the perfect occasion for this:
Moral of the story: don’t be a genre snob. The book I judged so unfairly by its atrocious cover was Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn, first book in the Empress of Rome series.
(That is the nicer cover. To be fair, the one I read had one of those ‘naked woman’s back’ covers. How could I not throw a little shade.)
The Deal: (Let’s just assume from here on out that I’m totally lifting the jacket copy because I’m a shiftless layabout on my good days and a worthless sluggard on the days I’m supposed to review a book) Thea is a slave girl from Judaea, passionate, musical, and guarded. Purchased as a toy for the spiteful heiress Lepida Pollia, Thea will become her mistress’s rival for the love of Arius the Barbarian, Rome’s newest and most savage gladiator. His love brings Thea the first happiness of her life-that is quickly ended when a jealous Lepida tears them apart. As Lepida goes on to wreak havoc in the life of a new husband and his family, Thea remakes herself as a polished singer for Rome’s aristocrats. Unwittingly, she attracts another admirer in the charismatic Emperor of Rome. But Domitian’s games have a darker side, and Thea finds herself fighting for both soul and sanity. Many have tried to destroy the Emperor: a vengeful gladiator, an upright senator, a tormented soldier, a Vestal Virgin. But in the end, the life of the brilliant and paranoid Domitian lies in the hands of one woman: the Emperor’s mistress.
Robyn says: Guys. GUYS. Such a good book! Where do I start? Like any good historical, the events of the novel are set against a backdrop of actual historical events. In this novel, the later days of the Roman Empire’s Flavian dynasty are the focus. As the book’s copy describes, Thea catches the attention of Domitian, the last Flavian Emperor. I wasn’t familiar with Domitian before reading this novel, so I really enjoyed learning more about a post-Julio-Claudian Rome. It’s quite a large-scale b00k – anything involving an emperor is big, in my opinion, but also in terms of time, as the book’s events span a decade or so – but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that despite the sweeping, epic story, there was some good character development. Not every character was as nuanced as the mains, but Thea and her lover, Arius, both evolved over the course of the story. Thea’s PTSD was another fascinating aspect of the novel, and quite meaningful to me on a personal level. At times, I wished I knew more about Arius – the story is told from alternating points of view, but only Thea’s parts are narrated in the first-person. There is a host of intriguing supporting characters, including the consummately evil Lepida, and while I didn’t skip their chapters, a part of me wished the narration had been limited to Thea and Arius. On a superficial level, I understood the relevance of these other characters and could see how their perspectives enriched the larger story, but I didn’t really care about them they way I did Thea and Arius. Or maybe I’m just a swoony sap of a romantic beneath this stony exterior. MAYBE I DO HAVE A HEART AFTER ALL.
Lol. Or maybe not.
Another plus: the story was exceptionally well-paced. And when I say well-paced, I mean I tore through this book like I was on fire. Or the book was on fire. There was definitely fire involved. I was mad to find out what happened next, and I can’t think of a moment when I felt anything dragged. The sexy-times were super-tame, mostly a sentence or two of vaguely provocative description, but the romance was there, so I was happy. And – spoiler – there was, at last, a happy ending.
Oh, and there’s a character named Vercingetorix. Not the Vercingetorix, but still. #TeamVercingetorix.
Verdict: Read it. Don’t be a genre snob like me! There are gladiators and mad emperors and swoon! WHAT MORE COULD ANYONE ASK FOR???
Best lines: “What kind of moron wants to be a gladiator?” I don’t know why but that line pleases me no end. I’m using it whenever someone questions me when I want to do something crazy and awesome. (Do you hear me, Mom? I’m totally jumping down into one of those subterranean caves and falling through a bat tornado and you can’t stop me, dammit.)
Rating: Four out of five murdered Roman Emperors. What kind of moron wants to be an emperor, that’s the real question.
Book Cat! You were named after a Roman general. Give us your insider’s take.