This is the third in a tetralogy set in the Year of the Four Emperors, 69 AD, and follows on from Palatine (HNR 72) and Galba’s Men (HNR 78).
This series centres each volume on one of the successive Emperors, and this one stars (if that is the word) the Emperor Otho, who has recently gained the throne. Otho’s immediate problem is to prevent his own replacement by a general currently in Germany, Vitellius, who has also been proclaimed Emperor and is preparing to march on Rome to claim the Empire. In the middle of all this is the Emperor’s secretary, Epaphroditus, who is trying to prevent the junction of Vitellius’ forces with those of his ally Caecina.
The narrative shifts around from one character and place to another, but the author is as deft at this as she was in the preceding novels. The centre of gravity of the whole series is Epaphroditus’ own former secretary, the Taprobanian (Sri Lankan) freedman Philo.
Other characters from the previous novels are still playing prominent roles, in particular the eunuch Sporus, once Nero’s “Second Empress”, who hopes to achieve the same status with Otho. The whip-wielding Artemina is still the Empress’ bodyguard. One major character suffers personal tragedy in a violent incident at the palace caused by a foolish misunderstanding.
It is impossible to summarise the plot, so rich and complex is it, and when it is finally revealed what “Otho’s regret” actually is, when it eventually comes about, it is both puzzling and moving. I reviewed Palatine, but I have not yet read Galba’s Men. Nevertheless, enough backstory was presented here to enable me to understand what was going on.