Savage City by Sophia McDougall (2011 book #24)

This is the final book in the Romanitas trilogy – the first two of which I read last year and wrote about here – though it’s worth noting that the first two books have been reissued by a new publisher in advance of Savage City, and there has apparently been some re-editing of them for the new releases. However, as far as I’m aware there have been no changes in the story along the way.

Anyway, the full review is after the ‘read more’ link, and I would warn you not to click it if you haven’t read the book and are planning to, as it’s almost impossible to review without dropping some major spoilers (this review by Pornokitsch attempts it, however). In capsule, though, if you’ve read the first two books in the series then you should get round to reading this as soon as possible, and if you haven’t then take a look at my review from last year.

And that’s the last of your warnings. Look away now if you don’t want to know the result.

There are times when reading Savage City that you think you know what’s going to come next and how the plot is going to resolve itself. A lot of those times you’re going to be very wrong. It starts where Rome Burning left off, in the aftermath of the bombing of the Colosseum, as rescuers attempt to pick members of the Imperial Family from the rubble and we discover that the Emperor’s dead, but Marcus is badly injured but alive. ‘Aha!’ We think. ‘Clearly the story here will be a recovering Marcus attempting to implement his vision of the Empire in the face of pressure for war with Nionia as revenge.’ All that seems eminently plausible, until Marcus – one of the principal trio of characters in the last two books – scuppers it by dying from his injuries.

Yes, that’s why I warned you about spoilers – the book swerves hugely away from what you were expecting right at the start and continues to head through territories you weren’t expecting. It’s throwing in something unexpected like that which gives McDougall the chance to show some of the true nature of the surviving Roman Empire. In the first couple of books – slavery aside – it’s easy to see the Empire as roughly comparable to certain modern non-democratic states, but here we get to see it for what it truly is. Entire families are massacred in bids for power, and the tools of the state are used at the whim of a madman seeking glory and revenge against all those who tried to hinder his rise to power.

McDougall takes us on a journey around various parts of the world she’s created, but it’s not the novelty sightseeing that fills many alternate histories. With the stakes raised, you’re much more aware of the realities of this world, where there isn’t anywhere free to escape to, just a choice of which variety of despotism you prefer. Even in the ending, when some variety of hope has been restored, everything is tinged with bitterness as the characters realise that making vast changes to this society isn’t something that can just be achieved with a few words.

Overall, I’ve been impressed with the trilogy, especially as they’re the first three books from a new writer. For me, McDougall’s writing has improved over the series, and it’ll be interesting to see what she does next.