Review: Romanitas, by Sophia McDougall

Covert Art: RomanitasTitle: Romanitas
Author: Sophia McDougall
Series/Stand alone: Volume One of the Romanitas Trilogy
Genre: Alternate History/Fantasy
First Published: 2005
Edition Reviewed: Gollancz (2011)
Hb/Pb/ebook: ebook – Kindle
Price: £4.99 on Amazon at time of posting.


Rome never died. The Empire is as strong as ever and ruled by the Novious family. Marcus is the son of Leo Novious, brother to the emperor and heir to the throne. But as the book opens tragedy has struck. Leo and his wife Clodia have died in a car crash. Although succession is not guaranteed, Marcus is the tacit favourite for heir in Leo’s place. But Marcus is only 16. He has never liked the grandeur of Rome, he feels intimidated by his more confident cousin, Drusus, and he hates being weighted on by slaves, which his own father had refused to own.

It is with relief, then, that Marcus is called back to his parents’ estate by Leo’s friend and the executor of his will, Varius. But the relief is short lived. Varius and his wife, Gemella, reveal to him that they suspect Leo and Clodia were murdered because of their plans to overthrow slavery once Leo became emperor. As they are speaking, however, Gemella eats a sweet that had been in a parcel given to Marcus by his aunt, Makaria, before he left Rome. Gemella collapses and dies – poisoned by sweets intended for Marcus. Varius helps Marcus to flee, giving him a map to a secret refuge for runaway slaves.

Meanwhile, Una, a slave in Britannia, frees her brother, Sulien, from a prison ship that had been taking him to be crucified for rape. Sulien is not a rapist, but he made the mistake of sleeping with the daughter of his owner, and it is forbidden for a slave to sleep with a free woman. Una and Sulien have unusual abilities: Una can read minds, and to some extent direct people’s thoughts; Sulien can see how the body works, and heal it. Una cannot put a thought into someone’s mind, but she can distract them by bringing some thoughts to prominence over others. This is very useful when you’re an escaped slave trying to keep your fugitive brother safe.

Una and Sulien flee to the continent and encounter Marcus. Their first instinct is to turn him in. A large sum of money has been offered for his safe return, and it is rumoured that the family curse has come upon him, and he has gone mad – a danger to himself. Sulien suggests that they could trade Marcus for their freedom, and a pardon, but Marcus persuades them that he is fleeing for his life, and Una can tell that he isn’t mad. He promises them the money, the pardon, and their freedom if they let him go, and offers to take them to the slave refuge he is going to himself. The slaves and the heir to the empire flee together, heading for a sanctuary they barely know the location of, whilst in Rome Varius strives to protect Marcus by concealing his escape.

How was it?

Bloody awesome, that’s how it was. Stay-up-until-2am-to-finish awesome. Waste-hours-in-the-bath-topping-up-the-hot-water-because-you-don’t-want-to-stop-reading-to-get-out awesome.

Romanitas marked a new experience for me. I follow a lot of authors on Twitter, but I haven’t actually read an author solely based on my social media interactions with them, before. I followed Sophia after I was linked to her Capes, Wedding Dresses, and Steven Moffat blog post. The article included both the full quotation from SM himself and an extensive, accurate, entertaining, and fair take-down of what the Moff had said. It chimed very strongly with my own views about sex and gender, which is something that happens all too infrequently. The more I followed her and the more I read from her, the more she talked very well-articulated sense. Blog writing and fiction writing are not the same thing, and I was by no means sure from this that she would have a fiction writing style that I got on with, but I thought: what the hey? I’m bored of reading books that trip me up on gender issues when I’d much rather get caught up in the action – at the very least I think I can depend on her not to do that.

And oh my, but I’m glad I did. Looking at the reviews on Amazon, there was a surprising split. Lots of people had given it five stars, and lots of people have given it only one star. You don’t see that often, so I was curious. The most common complaints seemed to be either that a) the reader had been expecting an alternate history, and what were these psychic abilities they had found in their porridge?; or b) the reader had found the prose impossibly dense. The first I dismiss – it’s a matter of taste. I love crossing genres and see no reason to be bound by what are, in any case, loose groopings of linguistic convenience and bookshop shelving. If you don’t like fantasy in your alternate history, don’t read a book where the main character can read people’s minds. It’s not the book’s fault.

The second criticism, though, just puzzles me. This is not a dense book. I’ve seen it likened to China Miéville as a compliment, too, but I don’t see that, either. From the reviews I was expecting something either Miéville lush and maybe a bit purple, Stephen King rich and detailed, or Mervyn Peake impenetrable. I suspected not the last, as the positive reviews rebuked this, and I’m a King fan and occasional Miéville reader, so I don’t mind a wordy book if the words are well-used, but I wouldn’t really equate Sophia’s writing to any of the above. The style was clear and it set the scenes well, but at no point did I feel that the description got in the way of the story – quite the reverse. In fact, one of the few criticisms I might make is that first chapter is noticeably weaker than the rest, as it was a bit difficult to visualise the scene. I know very little about the architecture of Rome and was still settling into the new world Sophia was creating, so I had a little trouble placing people within the scene and imagining where they were. The problem did not recur in the rest of the book, however. The only reason I note it is to say that if you’re not immediately captured by the first chapter, keep reading – it pretty much instantly finds its groove and starts moving.

This is a fast-paced novel of disperate threads coming together in culminating tension. The characters are rich and well-rounded. There are plentiful characters of both genders, all of whom have their strengths and their flaws. Una is simply fabulous. Her angry-at-the-world spiky strength, determination, and defensiveness remind me oh-so-strongly of the girl I was at that age. I could have taken on anything, and yet I was crushed by the oppressive reality of how cruel the world could be. It made me closed off and determined, and it didn’t make me a lot of friends, but it helped me to survive. I was stronger then than I ever shall be again. Una is like that, and with greater reason. I can’t describe how wonderful it is to have a female protagonist like this, especially as it is recognised that her strength is also a flaw. To be tough like that is also to shut down on the world, to not make room for others. Moreover, Una and Marcus are given opportunities to save each other. The plotline of the slave girl and the emperor’s nephew could so easily go over into a painful Cinderella story where the tough girl is rescued from her squalid life by the handsome prince, but Romanitas skillfully avoids this without turning Una into an implausible superwoman, leaving a swathe of foolish menfolk in her wake.

The other characters are also rich and diverse. I’ll confess I enjoyed the galdiatrix, Ziye, more than I would have expected. It would be easy to insert a gladiatrix and make her some implausible, cartoon Amazon, but Ziye’s past as a fighter is used lightly. It is something she escaped from, something she doesn’t talk about, but a fact of power and skill for killing that exists in her background and colours the few nice moment where it becomes relevant. Equally, I found the escaped slave, Pyrrha, and her daughter Iris, just as compelling. Pyrrha escaped slavery and took Iris with her, crossing hundreds of miles to find safety, after which she retreated into a shell of despair, convinced that they would never be safe, with patient Iris looking after her. Women in all their weaknesses and their strengths, and men, too. Marcus is intelligent and possessed of that germ of leadership that could make him something one day, but still every inch the sixteen year old boy. Dama, the fiery revolutionary, crippled physically by what happened to him as a slave, but also mentally driven by it into a single-mindedness that is its own prejudice. Delir, the ordinary man who became a leader when he simply decided one day that enough was enough, pulled a slave down from a cross, and went on the run with his daughter in tow.

The exploration of privilege is deftly handled. A story about slavery set in the modern day is crying out for some discussion of privilege, and it could very easily be overdone and heavy-handed. Romanitas does not have this problem. The striking contrast between Marcus’s and Una’s positions produces a thorn in their relationship at several points, but although the narrative never denies Marcus’s privileged upbringing, it does not blame him for it, either. It acknowledges, rather, the difficulty one who has privilege can find in trying to understand the difficulties faced by those who don’t, whilst elsewhere other characters take up the burden of exemplifying casual and unexamined privilege. No one is painted entirely flat, though. Even Gabinius, the business tycoon whose life is founded on the work of slaves, is not a character without humanity. This is the lesson so often missed: the privilege discussion is not concerned with dividing the world into the privileged and the underprivileged. Rather, it calls on all of us to recognise privilege both in others and in ourselves, and to see that each of us is privileged in some ways and not in others. Painting those who, without thought, benefit from the oppression of those less privileged than themselves as evil is no more an answer than insisting that the problems of others cannot be as great as they say simply because it does not seem to be so very bad from the outside. Romanitas does not provide an indepth discussion of these issues – that would detract too much from its story – but it acknowledges and incorporates them; it is written in a way that recognises the complexity of the world and human interactions. I only wish we lived in a world where recognising that a novel has done so went without saying.

The setting is also delightful in its similarities and differences from our world. I haven’t read a lot of alternate history and I’m not a historian, but I enjoyed Sophia’s modernised Roman Empire. To my novice eye it seems well-researched, complete with a timeline of the alternate history at the back. There were only two drawbacks, for me, one of which is not the novel’s fault, but the Kindle’s – or its adaptation for the Kindle, perhaps. I speak of the map in the front. Where the changing political status of nations forms a major premise of your novel, the map at the front becomes more than a curiousity, but in the Kindle edition the map is too small to read, and it’s too cumbersome to jump back to it and then find your place again in any case. I would have loved to be able to flip freely back and forth and was frustrated by my inability to do so. I was pleased with myself for working out that the Sinoan Empire was China, cursed myself for taking so long to realise that Terranova was the US (the New World), and utterly failed to work out that Nionia was Japan.

The other point I’m not sure if I liked or didn’t like. Throughout the novel, many words that would have had Greek origins were shifted to what would have been their Latin alternatives. This is nifty and pleasing at first glance, but upon reflection rankled slightly. The main characters all speak Latin, but I don’t, I’m reading English. The whole novel is in translation, and far more than the Latin/Greek shifts would have changed linguistically as a result of a prolonged occupation of Great Britain by Rome. Which meant that the more I thought about it, the less sense it made for the telephone to be rendered as the ‘longdictor’, or the helicopter as the ‘volucer’. I’m probably over-thinking it – it’s all just colour, after all, a way of portraying how things have changed, and Sophia is clear that her linguistic choices are stylistic in a note at the end – but every now and then it would throw me. I don’t know. I’m still torn between thinking that it adds something to the novel, and that it detracts from it. I suspect that it is a sum game, or ‘worth throwing in overall’. As problems go, it’s very minor.

Lastly, there was an interesting flutter towards discussing religion, as Dama has converted to a monotheism that may be Judaism or Christianity (I wasn’t quite sure*), and it looks like Una might, too. In a world where pantheism has retained its dominance I was curious that monotheism should be given this focus without any exploration of the contrast. Everyone else seems at best apathetic towards the gods and their doings. It feels like a missed opportunity, and the themes surrounding the monotheistic elements left oddly hanging. Of course, not every story has to give quite the tour de force that so delighted me in the remake of Battlestar Galactica, and the character’s reasons for conversion were plausible, it just felt a little lopsided, is all. But still, this was a minor point that barely intruded and made very little difference to the general plot.

Overall this was a deftly executed, thoughtful, fun, engaging read that sucked me in and tugged appropriately on my emotions. I recommend it without hesitation. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. So refreshing to find a new author that one feels one can trust to deliver. My only decision now is whether to buy the next volume for the Kindle or as a physical book.

* Zoroastrianism, apparently, so I was wide of the mark, there. But the point about monotheism vs polytheism stands.

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