Monday, June 11, 2012

When In Rome...

I'm not sure I'd want to "do as the Romans do", at least not by Ancient Roman standards! Love is a beautiful thing, but how promising is it, when one person is a gladiator, condemned to death but allowed to live as long as he gives a good show in the arena, and the other is a house servant, once an educated girl from a respected family, but now enslaved and forced to do the bidding of the most ungrateful, spoiled biddy in town? Such is the question in Kate Quinn's historical fiction novel, Mistress of Rome. And before ye judge, no, this is not the standard supermarket bodice-ripper you may be imagining. This is actually a pretty well-researched historical novel, giving the reader a full on view of what it might have been like to live in those times, for ALL classes. We just learn about the world from the perspectives of Thea, a Jewish slave owned by bratty heiress Lepida, and Arius, the gladiator.

author Kate Quinn
image courtesy of

As fictional romances typically go, of course Thea and Arius have an instant connection, though actually meeting up takes some work. Luckily, Thea's mistress, Lepida, develops an infatuation with Arius and constantly sends Thea to the gladiator quarters with secret messages.  Over time, Thea's return trips back home take longer and longer (*wink, wink). It takes awhile for Lepida to catch on to what's going on, why her messages are never being answered by Arius, but once she does figure it out, she goes full-blown evil and finds a nasty way to split Arius and Thea apart. To spare you the spoilers / complete details of Lepida's sinister scheming, I will just say they end up spending years apart before finding each other again. By that time, Thea has a different sort of job, living in a different town, while Lepida naturally goes on to marry for money (to senator / bookworm Marcus Norbanus) and have an "oops" child she doesn't want or like. As the reader, you'll probably want to throttle Lepida, as I did, when you see how poorly she treats good-hearted Marcus. Never ceases to amaze me how the good guys always seem to fall right into the snares of the cruelest women. As for Arius, he finds his Thea in an odd relationship with Emperor Domitian (one that proves beneficial, in sort of a business-like way, to both Thea and Domitian). There's one other big surprise for Arius when he reunites with Thea but you'll have to read to find out

I loved the complexity of all of these characters. The evil ones were over the top evil, the good were  noble in character but lived a flawed reality, which I found refreshing. I like that sort of realism, even in fiction. Arius has a streak of rage he constantly battles, but he centers it and does his best to avoid bringing unneccessary  harm to the innocent (doesn't always succeed, but he does try!). He spends much of the novel trying to win a rudius from the emperor (a wooden sword emperors gave out to certain prisoners who had won favor with them. Obtaining a rudius meant you were pardoned of your crimes, your freedom reinstated). Emperor Domitian, on the other hand, starts out as a respectable character but then his straight up whacked out crazy starts to come out more as the novel progresses. That guy is into some twisted, twisted stuff. The way Quinn wrote Domitian makes me think she was inspired by the real-life Roman Emperor, Caligula, who also started out as a respected ruler but became more well known for his depravity and drunken orgies (not saying there's anything wrong with one in it's own place and time --- Zoolander, anyone?  :-P --- just noticed the similarity). And wouldn't you know, here comes Lepida again with an interest in Domitian this time. Poor Thea can't shake that witch off!

She's beautiful. She's even sort of interesting, like the way poisonous snakes are interesting. But she's awful. ~~ Vibia Sabina, daughter of Lepida & Marcus, talking about her own mother!

Because no one ever notices me, you'd be surprised how much I hear. ~~Vibia Sabina

I was really impressed with all the strong female characters in this book. Often, with historical fiction anyway, you find maybe one strong woman in the book with everyone else telling her to pipe down. In this book, good or bad, all the women seemed to have strong voices and had the men actually listening to them, even Thea, being a slave girl, earned respect from many. I found the Empress really admirable. You don't hear much from her through most of the novel, other than the rumors going around about her, but by the end you find out she's actually a pretty ballzy, spirited woman who did what she had to do to survive a maniac for a husband. You also find out she has a sense of humor about the whole thing, even though she admits she feared for her life at times. Also, Calpurnia, the bethrothed of Marcus' son (from an earlier marriage) becomes a fun character once she learns to speak her mind without fear. I loved it whenever she put Lepida in her place!

I wouldn't say there are any HUGE surprises in the plot, but enough twists and turns to keep the historical fiction fan entertained. :-)  Looking forward to when I have a chance to read Kate Quinn's second novel, Daughters of Rome.

"ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED??" ~ Russell Crow in Gladiator

The midday executions dragged past, and then the gladiators marched through the Gate Of Life in their purple cloaks, pairing off for preliminary fights. My {Lepida's}daughter leaned forward, her eyes bending on the muscled armored figures. I looked at her irritably. "Since when is Little Lady Squeamish a gladiator fan?" "I'm not," she said, eyes still fixed on the arena. "I went for the first time at Matralia, and it was fairly awful. But it is interesting." I {Lepida} brushed a fly away from my wine cup. "You've got a crush on a trident fighter, I suppose."  "'s just that the gladiators are supposed to care about dying well, and all they care about is not dying at all." Her eyes traveled from the arena to the packed tiers of the Colosseum., the laughing, cheering crowds of plebs and patricians alike. "People don't seem to see that."