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.

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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.

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Anthology: Tales of Ancient Rome by S. J. A. Turney

Tales of Ancient Rome by S. J. A. Turney(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

A collection of bite-size stories of varying styles all based in the world of ancient Rome. 12 tales of the ancient world, plus a bonus tale to finish.

The second edition contains two new tales not told in the 1st. Laugh, cry and shudder at:

Hold The Wall – Hadrian’s wall in the last days of the western empire
Vigil – A comedic tale of firefighting in Rome
*NEW* Rudis – A champion gladiator fights his last fight
*NEW* The Discovery – A Roman trader makes a surprising find in distant China
The man who bought an Empire – The lowest point of Imperial succession
Trackside seats – A slave helps his blind master at the circus
How to run a latifundium – A cautionary tale of estate management
A Reading – What does the future hold in Judea?
Exploratores – Trajan’s scouts on the trail of Dacian warriors
With a pinch of salt – A comedic tale of food in Claudius’ Rome
The Palmyrene Prince – Rome’s eastern border tells grim tales
Temple Trouble – A tale of the early days of Fronto (of the Marius’ Mules series)
Bonus tale: Aftermath in the Ludus – A fun finish.

As you guys probably know from my reviews I don’t actually read all that many anthologies. They’re just usually not my thing unless they’re from a writer I really love.  Still, I decided to download Tales of Ancient Rome for free on Amazon one day because I figured I had nothing to lose and at least something to gain.  I mean, I love ancient Rome.

So overall, how was the anthology?  Pretty good, actually.  Turney managed to span quite a few different periods of time in the Roman Empire, from the reign of Claudius to the last days of the empire as it was being torn apart by invaders and civil wars.  I always like a little variety in an anthology and this one certainly delivered in that respect.

Most of the stories were pretty solid.  They’re quite short but they’re nice little slices of Roman life.  We have everything from the viewpoints of foreign princes to slaves and each character has a distinct outlook on life.  Some stories are more humourous than others but pretty much all of them are interesting.  One of my favourites was Rudis, the tale of the gladiator in his very last fight before his freedom because the ending was so unexpected.  He was a fascinating character, even though he didn’t get much page time.  Temple Trouble was laugh out loud hilarious and it actually makes me want to read the full length series in which that character features.  He would certainly get into some interesting situations!  There were some weak stories like Ludus but most stories were pretty good.

As for historical accuracy, I was quite impressed.  Turney knows his stuff and all of the little details he puts into his writing makes it better.  He has a good grasp of the wide span of Roman history and although it would be a little hard to orient yourself if you’re not familiar with Roman history, I quite enjoyed the stories because I picked out little clues as to the time period.  If you know sort of a general outline of Roman history you should be fine with Tales of Ancient Rome but if you’re a newcomer I wouldn’t recommend the anthology.

Basically, Tales of Ancient Rome (Volume 1) was a solid anthology.  It wasn’t the best I’ve ever read and there were some weaker aspects to it but overall I was quite impressed.  I certainly got more than my money’s worth out of it and I’d recommend it to my fellow Roman history enthusiasts.  Best of all, it’s free as a Kindle or Nook ebook.

I give this anthology 4.5/5 stars.

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The Eagles’ Brood by Jack Whyte

The Eagles' Brood by Jack Whyte(Cover picture courtesy of 49th Shelf.)

The Eagles’ Brood continues the saga of the Colony known as Camulod, and the tale of the descendants of those brave Romans who forged a new way of life for the Celt and Roman peoples when the Roman legions departed Britain.

Most know the new leader of the Colony as Merlyn; all call him Commander. Cauis Merlyn Britannicus is responsible for their safety, and all look to him for guidance, leadership, justice, and salvation. It is a harsh life but a good community, and Merlyn is dedicated to spreading the influence of Roman culture beyond the Colony’s borders.

Uther Pendragon, the man who will father the legendary Arthur, is the cousin Merlyn has known and loved since they were birthed, four hours apart on the same day, the year the legions left Britain. He is the tireless warrior–the red dragon to Merlyn’s great silver bear–and between the two of them, the Colony knows few enemies.

As different as they can be, they are inseparable: two faces of the same coin. In a world torn apart by warfare and upheaval, each is the other’s certainty and guarantee of the survival of the Colony . . . until a vicious crime, one that strikes at the roots of Merlyn’s life, drives a wedge between them. A wedge that threatens the fate of a nation . . . .

For me, The Eagle’s Brood was such a sad book.  I had to say goodbye to some of my favourite characters from the previous two books: Picus, Publius Varrus and Equus.  Although Caius Merlyn doesn’t have the flair and sense of humour of Publius Varrus, I really did grow to love him as a narrator.

The characters were great in this.  We see everything through Merlyn’s eyes, with all of his judgments and flaws.  He’s a good person but not a perfect character and gradually realizes his flaws.  He can be more than a little judgmental and arrogant at times, but I love how the perspective is told from his older self looking back on his youth.  It brings a little more balance to the equation and I loved Merlyn all the more for it.  Uther was an okay character, but we didn’t really get to see much of the good side of him at all.  That’s why I feel I need to reread Uther (the standalone Jack Whyte later wrote from Uther’s perspective) to fully understand him better.

The plot wasn’t the most fast-moving at the beginning, but the last few hundred pages went fast.  The familiar Arthurian mythology we all know and love is now present almost all of the way through the novel and combined with the other events like the war with Lot, this made for a fast read.  If you’re just picking this book up without reading the first two in A Dream of Eagles you won’t appreciate it as much, but each of Jack Whyte’s books can stand on their own.

I can’t and won’t really comment on the historical accuracy of The Eagles’ Brood.  Although the main events of the novel are correct: the Romans withdrew from Britain, the Saxons started raiding the shores, tribes squabbled for control while the remaining Romans in the province tried to restore some order.  I have a feeling that most of Jack Whyte’s novel is historically accurate because of what I know of ancient Rome as well as how he really sucks you into that period of time.  You really do feel like you’re there and that’s something I’ve always admired in him as a writer.

Despite some rather graphic, disturbing scenes I really did enjoy The Eagles’ Brood.  I’d highly recommend A Dream of Eagles series to anyone who enjoys the Arthurian legends, with or without magical elements.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough

The Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough(Cover picture courtesy of The Incurable Bluestocking.)

Throughout the Western world, great kingdoms have fallen and despots lay crushed beneath the heels of Rome’s advancing legions.  But now internal rebellion threatens the stability of the mighty Republic.  An aging, ailing Gaius Marius, heralded conqueror of Germany and Numidia, longs for that which was prophesied many years before: an unprecedented seventh consulship of Rome.  It is a prize to be won only through treachery and with blood, pitting Marius against a new generation of assassins, power-seekers and Senate intriguers—and setting him at odds with the ambitious, tormented Lucius Cornelius Sulla, once Marius’s most trusted right-hand man, now his most dangerous rival.

It goes without saying that we get to see things from the POVs of our old favourite characters Marius and Sulla but I for one welcomed the introduction of other characters.  Livia Drusa was a fantastic female character and her situation really gave me more insight into the plight of aristocratic women in Rome.  And of course who can forget the precocious young Gaius Julius Caesar, who is feared by Marius because of old Martha’s prophecy that he would surpass his uncle?  As with how it actually happened, Marius’s declining health and mental state led to Sulla’s meteoric rise up the ranks of the Roman hierarchy.  The way Colleen McCullough chose to tell the story was very telling: Marius, whose star is fading, receives very little page time while Sulla takes the main stage.

While I can see where this new expanded set of characters might confuse some readers, if you’ve read The First Man in Rome you’ll have no trouble following the many intrigues of The Grass Crown.  The Social War is sort of the main war in this book and it’s certainly not simplistic.  What fascinated me the most was the different approaches the many Senators took to the war and how they proposed to stop the Italian rebellion and discourage future rebellions.  Pompey Strabo Carnifex, true to his name (‘Pompey Cross-Eyed Butcher’ in English) was a truly horrible character that demonstrated the worst the patrician class had to offer.  There are just so many different, complex characters that if I start on them now this review will turn into an essay.

In essence the characters drive the story, whether they’re Roman or not since we get to see things from all points of view.  The plot is not fast-paced by any stretch of the imagination and yet Colleen McCullough’s writing is just too good to put down.  She truly cares about historical accuracy and her writing immerses you in the cutthroat world of ancient Rome.  From the halls of the Senate to the blood-soaked streets of Rome all the way to the far east of the empire, you’ll feel like you’re really there with the characters watching the events play out.  And that, my friends, is a special talent very few writers possess.

With the end being such a cliffhanger I had no choice but to dive straight into the next book, Fortune’s Favorites.  Truly, Colleen McCullough has an addictive writing style.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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