Mistress of Rome
Thea is a Jewish slave girl, brought to Rome to be maidservant to the spoiled beauty Lepida Pollia. Arius the Barbarian is a reluctant gladiator, forced into a life of violence after he is kidnapped from Britannia. When they meet, each is wary of love – but gradually they find in one another a haven from the turmoil and powerlessness of their lives. However, Arius must continue to fight for his life in the arena, and Thea’s mistress Lepida quickly grows jealous of the handsome gladiator’s attentions. When Lepida separates them, Thea and Arius are pitched into different worlds. But when Thea catches the eye of the cruel and cunning Emperor Domitian and unwillingly becomes the royal mistress, old rivalries resurface. Lepida, who has acquired a husband of wealth and rank, nevertheless seeks higher conquests. And Arius the Barbarian issues a personal challenge to Domitian that can only end in death: his own, or the emperor’s.
In this epic debut, Kate Quinn gives us a gripping vision of 1st-century Rome under the Flavians – from the palace to the gladiator barracks, from the senate house to the brothel. What seems at first to have all the earmarks of a straightforward romance expands to encompass greater themes, offering the intrigue of a political thriller and the depth of great literary fiction. Quinn weaves the perspectives of half a dozen characters into a seamless tapestry, following every thread and neatly knotting every loose end. While she takes liberties with the gladiatorial games – allowing Arius to battle women, for instance, or to fight one against six – she acknowledges these inconsistencies in a well-reasoned historical note. Overall, Mistress of Rome is impeccably researched and beautifully executed. Such an accomplished debut can only augur many more impressive historical novels to come!
Fans of fiction set in ancient Rome are spoilt for choice when it comes to thud-and-blunder action for the boys. Now here’s something for the girls, a racy tale set in the 1st century AD, packed with fabulous frocks, licentious lust and gladiatorial gore.
Shallow, self-indulgent Lepida and her slave Thea (captured at Masada, toughened by adversity and inclined to self-harm) have both fallen for gladiator Arius, rising star of the Colosseum. But Arius loves only one of them. When Lepida finds out it isn’t her, she sells Thea to a man who removes her to faraway Brundisium. Inevitably, they all meet again but now the stakes, involving cruel, depraved emperor Domitian, are much higher.
The story is told with gusto, but the flow is marred by the author’s odd decision to write Lepida and Thea in first-person scenes dropped into a third-person narrative with name headings to show where they start but nothing to show where they end. For an even more indigestible mix, add Domitian’s unfortunate niece Julia, a would-be Vestal Virgin whose story pops up here and there in both ‘I’ and italics. Why inflict this complicated, confusing structure on such a straightforward tale? It didn’t make the novel seem ‘literary’, nor did it deepen characterisation; indeed, the only characters for whom I felt any sympathy were Senator Norbanus, a decent old cove who makes the mistake of marrying Lepida, and his hapless son from a previous marriage who falls under Lepida’s spell – with disastrous consequences.