Caesar’s Daughter: Julia’s Song by Alex Johnston

Caesar's Daughter Julia's Song by Alex Johnston(Cover picture courtesy of History and Other Thoughts.)

After serving Julius Caesar on assignments in Gaul and Alexandria, Marcus Mettius is finally back home in Rome. His work with Caesar had been lucrative, but dangerous. So you can imagine his trepidation when the Roman soldier Quintus shows up at the tavern where Marcus is drinking with yet another letter from Caesar.

You’ve got to admit, Caesar certainly had balls, asking Marcus for his help yet again. On his last two assignments, Marcus was arrested by a mad Egyptian Pharaoh, almost burnt at the stake, and nearly lynched by an angry mob.

But this time is different (you can almost hear the Fates chuckling with glee at THAT line!) All Caesar wants Marcus to do this time is to take a gift to his daughter, Julia, and have a little chat with her while he is there. Certainly no harm can come from that, right?

Well, the next thing you know, Marcus is all tangled up with the leading figures of late Republican Rome – Pompey, Cicero, the deposed King of Egypt, and, of course, the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher, aedile and former Tribune of the Plebs.

Once again, Marcus’ life hangs in the balance, in ways he could scarcely have imagined. But he shouldn’t be surprised. After all, he’s Caesar’s Agent Man. And odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow. Join Marcus and his friends in the thrilling sequel to Caesar’s Emissary!

I previously read and reviewed the first book in Alex Johnston’s short story series about Marcus Mettius, Caesar’s Ambassador.  Well, I absolutely loved his funny take on Roman history through the eyes of a bit player.  I mean, how can you not love Marcus Mettius, the consummate salesman?

The book starts off with us hearing about the most feared slave since Spartacus: Vinus, Marcus’ wine slave who writes critical reviews of wine throughout Italy that can make or break a vineyard.  He’s not that important in the scheme of things but it certainly sets the tone as Marcus decides Vinus really doesn’t understand how the whole master-slave relationship works out because Vinus tends to dictate to him and not the other way around.  This isn’t just meaningless joking, though.  It serves to tell us a lot about the aftermath of Spartacus’ rebellion and how the First Triumvirate are faring currently (despite the rogue Clodius terrorizing all of Rome).

One thing about Alex Johnston’s writing that I really appreciate is his obvious deep love and respect for Roman history.  You can really tell that he loves it but at the same time is able to create some rather irreverent versions of famous historical characters like Cicero and Pompey Magnus.  He uses modern dialogue and slang to convey the idea that while obviously not accurate, Romans had their own sort of slang and ways of speaking rather than the usual dry dialogue I find in historical fiction.  They had crude language (Latin is a beautiful language to swear in), the younger generation’s version of rap, etc.  He really captures that sort of turning point in Roman culture as the Republic is failing and although some events are changed a little for the story Caesar’s Daughter it’s actually very historically accurate.

Add on top of all this awesomeness the fact that Alex Johnston is a truly hilarious writer.  I was in stitches, literally laughing out loud half of the time.  There are some jokes where you have to know Roman history to truly appreciate but the majority of them are hilarious non-insider jokes.  You really can’t get a better take on history that’s funny, historically accurate and yet not historically accurate at all.  The only thing I can really criticize is the overuse of capitals when characters are exclaiming things excitedly.  They lose their effect after a while.

Although I’m kind of in a mixed up order for the series right now I’m really looking forward to reading the second short story Caesar’s Emissary some day.  I’d recommend giving Alex Johnston’s short stories a try for pretty much everyone, even if you’re not a big Roman history buff.

I give this short story 4.5/5 stars.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble*     Goodreads

*Not available.

Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter(Cover picture courtesy of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.)

When your world blows apart, what will you hold onto?

TAG is a medical slave, doomed to spend his life healing his master’s injured gladiators. But his warrior’s heart yearns to fight in the gladiator ring himself and earn enough money to win his freedom.

LUCIA is the daughter of Tag’s owner, doomed by her father’s greed to marry a much older Roman man. But she loves studying the natural world around her home in Pompeii, and lately she’s been noticing some odd occurrences in the landscape: small lakes disappearing; a sulfurous smell in the air. . . .

When the two childhood friends reconnect, each with their own longings, they fall passionately in love. But as they plot their escape from the city, a patrician fighter reveals his own plans for them — to Lucia’s father, who imprisons Tag as punishment. Then an earthquake shakes Pompeii, in the first sign of the chaos to come. Will they be able to find each other again before the volcano destroys their whole world?

[Full disclosure: I received a free paperback from the publisher in exchange for an honest review during the book tour.]

One of the things that struck me about Vicky Alvear Shecter’s first book, Cleopatra’s Moon was the historical accuracy.  She is an excellent writer when it comes to putting little historical details into her writing to give it that authentic feel.  In this novel she’s even better because there are detailed descriptions of the medical practices, gladiator training and even the current political climate.  That’s not really something you expect from a book aimed at the younger YA demographic (13 to about 15) so I was quite impressed.

Her characters were good, but I didn’t take a particular shine to either of the leads.  Lucia is quite naive, as would be expected from her upbringing, but she never really gets any better either.  She still doesn’t know when to speak and when to keep her mouth shut, which is pretty frustrating for me.  Still, she’s a well developed character and you really get the feeling that she is the product of her upbringing.  Tag (short for Tages) is far more interesting with his medical knowledge and his desire to become a gladiator to buy his freedom.  That could be because I’m a sucker for the underdog in stories but whatever.  In the end, all of the characters Vicky Alvear Shecter writes about are well-developed and have believable motivations demonstrated through their actions.

The plot was quite well done in terms of pacing.  There’s this slow build-up to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and you can see how all of the signs of an eruption were there before from animals acting crazy to wells drying up.  Of course no one knew what was going on at the time so it was quite suspenseful for Lucia to slowly discover all of the signs before reaching her ultimate, terrifying conclusion.  The only thing I didn’t like about the plot was how it ended.  It was a little too melodramatic and the magical curse element seemed to come practically out of nowhere.  Looking back, I really think this book would have been better without the random curse that shows up about halfway into the book.  It just seems random and tries to add to the overall tension but really doesn’t.

In general, I think Curses and Smoke is a pretty good novel.  I don’t think it’s as good as Cleopatra’s Moon but I’d recommend it to young readers 13 to 15.

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble     Goodreads

Roma by Steven Saylor

Roma by Steven Saylor(Cover picture courtesy of Liberia Estudio en Escarlata.)

Spanning a thousand years, and following the shifting fortunes of two families though the ages, this is the epic saga of Rome, the city and its people.


Weaving history, legend, and new archaeological discoveries into a spellbinding narrative, critically acclaimed novelist Steven Saylor gives new life to the drama of the city’s first thousand years — from the founding of the city by the ill-fated twins Romulus and Remus, through Rome’s astonishing ascent to become the capitol of the most powerful empire in history. Roma recounts the tragedy of the hero-traitor Coriolanus, the capture of the city by the Gauls, the invasion of Hannibal, the bitter political struggles of the patricians and plebeians, and the ultimate death of Rome’s republic with the triumph, and assassination, of Julius Caesar.


Witnessing this history, and sometimes playing key roles, are the descendents of two of Rome’s first families, the Potitius and Pinarius clans:  One is the confidant of Romulus. One is born a slave and tempts a Vestal virgin to break her vows. One becomes a mass murderer. And one becomes the heir of Julius Caesar. Linking the generations is a mysterious talisman as ancient as the city itself.


Epic in every sense of the word, Roma is a panoramic historical saga and Saylor’s finest achievement to date.

When I first started Roma I’ll admit I did have my doubts because of Steven Saylor’s telling rather than showing style of writing.  However, I got into the swing of things and actually began enjoying his pared-down style that reads almost like a more intimate nonfiction work about the lives of two ancient Roman clans.

One of the most obvious strengths of Steven Saylor’s writing is the historical accuracy of the novel.  He does change some events around and speculate about some things but where there was information available he stuck to the facts.  I like how he doesn’t play the origins of ancient Rome straight (i.e. with gods and such) but rather offers up some explanations for how the heck such fantastical stories about Rome’s founding came about.  It makes sense and it’s quite possible that some of these things actually happened in a similar way and that’s why I really loved how Steven Saylor stayed true to the history.

His characters are amazing.  Every single one has a different perspective and a very unique voice.  They all live in turbulent times in Rome’s history so of course their lives are fascinating but it’s how they deal with the changing times that really stands out.  Some of the earlier Pinarii are quite snobby about their patrician status; later when the family is poor that’s not really the case.  Of course some of the ideas presented by characters will seem utterly absurd to modern readers but they really capture the prevailing attitudes of the time.

I can’t in all honesty call the plot fast-paced but it was very interesting.  I mean, how could Roman history not be interesting?  We get to see the events surrounding the first sack of Rome, the rise of Julius Caesar, the Second Punic War, etc.  All of the major events during the Republic period of ancient Rome are here in the novel or at least are alluded to because the characters are still dealing with the aftereffects of said events.  It’s a fascinating look at Roman history and although there was more telling than showing I still thoroughly enjoyed Roma.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble     Goodreads

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn(Cover picture courtesy of Kate Quinn’s website.)

An exciting debut: a vivid, richly imagined saga of ancient Rome from a masterful new voice in historical fiction

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.

After reading and enjoying Kate Quinn’s latest series, the Borgia Chronicles, I decided to go back and try some of her earlier works.  I mean, she wrote about Renaissance Rome well, so why not ancient Rome too?

As it turns out, Kate Quinn is comfortable in either era.  I was surprised the most by her writing, which makes you feel like you’re there.  You can hear the roaring cheers in the arena, smell the stench of Rome in summer, etc.  Her writing isn’t as polished in her debut as it is in her other books but I still really enjoyed it and she is still very good.

I like how she wound history and her own story seamlessly into a coherent narrative.  Of course there’s no evidence for some of the stuff that happens in the novel but Kate Quinn acknowledges that in her Historical Note and explains her reasons for adding or leaving out certain things.  In the end, she gets the feeling of the period across to the reader and has obviously done her research about the details of ancient Roman daily life.  That’s what’s really important to me with historical fiction.

Her characters are most definitely memorable, Thea especially.  I’m a sucker for the person who (sometimes unintentionally) goes from the lowest position possible in society to being the most highly coveted society figure as Thea does.  Still, being the Emperor Domitian’s mistress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and suddenly all of the separate paths of the narrative start to collide.  It was interesting to see how each person Kate Quinn gave readers an insight into took part in the plot, even Lepida (in her own way).  On the surface some of these characters are simply archetypes but Kate Quinn gives them so much depth that you barely notice.

This is a really good novel considering it was a debut novel and I can’t wait to read the rest of Kate Quinn’s Rome series.

I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble     Goodreads

The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

The Memoirs of Cleopatra(Cover picture courtesy of Margaret George’s site.)

Bestselling novelist Margaret George brings to life the glittering kingdom of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, in this luch, sweeping, and richly detailed saga. Told in Cleopatra’s own voice, this is a mesmerizing tale of ambition, passion, and betrayl, which begins when the twenty-year-old queen seeks out the most powerful man in the world, Julius Caesar, and does not end until, having survived the assassination of Caesar and the defeat of the second man she loves, Marc Antony, she plots her own death rather than be paraded in triumph through the streets of Rome.

This really is a monster of a book.  Compared to some books I’ve read it’s not that long, only 964 pages, but the pages are huge and that’s why it took me months to finish this book.  But in the end it was completely worth it, which is why I chose it for my 500th book review!

The thing I liked most about The Memoirs of Cleopatra wasn’t even the characters; it was the writing itself.  Margaret George has a beautiful, captivating style that brings history to life.  I could smell the slums of Rome, feel the hot Egyptian air on my skin in the temple of Philae and could even smell the perfumes and the food.  Her descriptions appeal to all five of the reader’s senses but she never really belabors the point.  She finds that perfect balance between Cleopatra’s own introspective nature and describing the scene around her for readers.

The characters were, of course, fantastic.  Cleopatra is far from perfect, believe me, but Margaret George paints her not as a goddess, man-eater or ruthless despot, but rather as a human being.  She loves, fights, rages, cries, smiles, laughs and does all of the things that normal human beings would do, especially under the amount of pressure she had throughout her whole life.  Cleopatra comes off as an amazing character and this is definitely one of the more memorable portrayals of the last Pharaoh that I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot).

Julius Caesar was pretty much as I expected but Marc Antony was interesting.  In this version it’s clear that he does struggle from some depression and feelings of inadequacy as Cleopatra pushes him to do the things she’s always wanted to do.  It’s like she’s trying to live through him as a man but Antony just can’t measure up, causing him to turn to alcohol.  This type of Antony has been portrayed before, but never quite as sympathetically as Margaret George portrays him.  In the end, despite his weaknesses, I felt sad when he took his own life.

Margaret George has very obviously done her research here.  The historical details are accurate as well as the broader strokes of the events of the time.  Of course she’s had to fill in some gaps with her own imagination, but she sticks as close to reality as possible.  Honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a novel that is better researched but so well written.

Basically, this was worth the months of reading and I couldn’t have picked a better book for my 500th review milestone.  If you like Cleopatra or ancient Egypt in general I can’t recommend this one enough.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble     Goodreads