Is David Barbaree’s debut novel historical fiction, or alternate history? It’s a question Barbaree actively wants us to consider, as he sets out a Rome where Nero did not commit suicide but was deposed and blinded, only to escape from prison and return to the city a decade later as a mysterious wealthy senator (“The Count of Monte Nero” might have been a fitting subtitle).
The only sources on Nero’s life are all politically influenced accounts written many years later, so they are far from reliable, and throughout Deposed Barbaree skilfully mirrors this by weaving into the narrative examples where subjective and objective truth collide, and the gap between fact and fiction becomes blurred. As Vespasian Caesar remarks in the closing pages, after a character has been condemned as a traitor on rather flimsy evidence, “Once an accusation’s made it’s as good as true… in the people’s eyes”.
While sophisticated, the novel is not without irritations, such as the use of the first person present tense, which adds little but makes it harder for the many narrators to develop their own voice—even Nero, surely one of the most unique and distinctive individuals to ever draw breath. Barbaree also likes to use modern vocabulary: “political party” just about works, but “kids”, “rendezvoused”, and “OK” all interrupt the willing suspension of disbelief.
But don’t be deterred: Deposed is a direct and pacey read that will delight fans of high-stakes political drama, while Barbaree’s deliberately provocative approach to history allows him to re-imagine well-known stories like Titus and Domitian, and the Year of the Four Emperors. The novel grows richer and deeper the longer it goes on, and the final scene is beautifully constructed and delivered. It deserves to do well, and the prospect of a continuing series is welcome.