Romanitas and Rome Burning

These aren’t New Year resolutions – look at the date, this post is on December 30th – but I’ve decided that I need to post more here and also to get back in the habit of reading more books, as I’ve got out of the habit of reading regularly and need to rectify that.

So, in one of those coming together of ideas, I’ve decided to borrow a habit from several other bloggers and write a post about each book after I’ve finished it. Not only does this help keep me posting regularly, it’s a good way to keep track of how much I’m reading.

Anyway, as a special introductory offer to this new series of posts – which, like other great blogging ideas I’ve had in the past could well splutter into nothing after an initial burst of enthusiasm – here’s a two-for-one offer for a novel and its sequel: Romanitas and Rome Burning by Sophia McDougall.

Both these books are set in an alternate history where the Roman Empire never fell (you can see full details of the timeline here) and Rome now dominates the world. This is a world where slavery is still legal, where crucifixion is still common and the Emperor still reigns.

Of the two books, I found Romanitas the weakest, possibly because it has to do a lot of the heavy lifting in establishing the world it takes place in. As well as the Empire surviving, this universe also includes characters with strange powers – healing, mind-reading and the prophecies of the Delphic Oracle are all featured – and the additional layer of strangeness that gives can be somewhat alienating for the reader. The heart of the story, though, is an action thriller as Marcus Novius – the teenage nephew of the Emperor – is forced on the run and into the company of two escaped slaves after his parents are assassinated. It’s good fun, though there is a tendency to get bogged down in characters’ introspection at points, but it provides an interesting glimpse of this strange world and sets the stage for more.

Rome Burning is a much stronger book, and more of a political thriller. Three years have passed and Marcus finds himself thrust into power as his uncle suffers a stroke and he is named Regent in his stead. Forces from many directions are trying to spark a war between Rome and the rising power of the Nionian (Japanese) Empire and Marcus is determined to stop it from happening. It’s an interesting at the way in which a world like that could operate from the bizarre diplomacy needed to engineer a meeting between leaders who are also potential gods in the public eye through to the institutional paranoia that drives high Roman politics.

Naturally, as the second part of a trilogy it ends on a cliffhanger, but the final part of the trilogy – Savage City – is published later this year, which should hopefully provide an interesting climax to the series. These are McDougall’s first two novels, and the ways in which her style and storytelling have improved between the two bodes well for the future.