Fire and Sacrifice
Rome, 114 BC. On the verge of being publicly executed by her cruel master, Secunda is saved by a Vestal virgin claiming she’s been marked by sacred fire—half of Secunda’s face is marked by fire from a childhood accident. Eager to please her saviors, Secunda makes use of her cooking talents. All the while, she becomes close to a priestess named Aemillia. Aemilia has tended the Vestal fire for almost thirty years and is poised to leave the temple. But military defeat and ill omens stir up tensions in the city. Then, three priestesses, including Aemilia, are accused of a shocking scandal. If found guilty, the women will be buried alive. Despite her social status, Secunda is determined to find a way to save her friend before it’s too late.
The narrative is broken into four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. The first three are different fictional viewpoints while “earth” provides snippets of research texts. I appreciated how each section was used to move the plot forward, but the character narrations sounded like one person instead of three unique perspectives. Part of this problem can be attributed to a lack of emotional depth. Significant events were presented via clipped dialogue instead of through emotional angst and exploration.
The author does a great job bringing the setting and political atmosphere to life. Exploring the inner workings of the vestal virgins is a delight. What is missed, however, is the historical vernacular. Expressions such as “scrummylicious,” “her bum,” “bugger off,” and “batshit” are glaringly modern in an otherwise lovely landscape. Overall, though, I enjoyed the author’s writing and her exploration of a time when Vestal virgins became the political scapegoats of Rome. This is an intriguing tale of forbidden love, political intrigue, and empowering friendship.