Melanie McDonald, in her slim, lyrical debut Eromenos, re-creates the story of the Roman emperor Hadrian’s all-consuming infatuation with the gorgeous Bithynian favorite Antinous. Hadrian adorned his villas with statues of the young man, named cities after him, and the relationship was the inspiration for a best-selling novel by Marguerite Yourcenar. In McDonald’s book, narrated by Antinous, we get palace intrigue, imperial politics, and a thrilling incident during a lion-hunt. The result is not a novel Yourcenar would have thought to write, but it’s one that would have pleased Mary Renault very much – her The Persian Boy, in which another favorite narrates his own story, is this book’s most obvious antecedent.
Intelligent, deeply-felt historical fiction like Eromenos is rare enough even in this new golden age of the genre. McDonald has honed her narrative until every phrase glitters. The machinations of other court favorites, the richly-detailed period atmosphere, the wary yet compulsive attraction between the emperor and Antinous – all are so richly and intelligently evoked that readers are swept along, forgetting that they already know how this particular story turns out. Eromenos is one of the finest historical novels I’ve read in many years. Readers are urged not to miss it.