Recently I’ve Read … Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn

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First published in 2010, Mistress of Rome is the debut novel of US author Kate Quinn. It is the first volume in her four-book Empress of Rome series, and spans the years AD 81 to 96, the reign of Emperor Domitian.

It is important to start off by saying that this isn’t what I would term ‘straight’ historical fiction. The novel provides a heavily fictionalised account of historical events, and historical figures mix with fictional characters in the cast list. However, Quinn’s Historical Note and annotated list of characters make it very clear where fact and fiction separate, and why these deviations were made. This is the sort of historical fiction that prompts you to go off and find out a bit more about the period, rather than giving you a whole lot of information itself. Additionally, apart from the period details about food, clothes, and gladiator fights, this doesn’t always read like historical fiction: we may be in the 1st century, but these are 21st century characters speaking 21st century dialogue.

I must stress that none of the above is a criticism: I adored this book. But historical fiction often seems to be judged more harshly than other genres, particularly if it is seen to be inaccurate or inauthentic in some way. And that isn’t fair. There are two types of historical fiction to my mind: there are your Wolf Halls and there is this – something which, if it were dramatised, would probably be a Showtime production. Think The Borgias or The Tudors and you won’t go far wrong.

Mistress of Rome is  brilliant fun and glorious entertainment. It focuses on the enmity between two women: spoilt patrician Lepida Pollia and Jewish slave girl Thea. We first meet these two when they are 14 and Thea is Lepida’s slave. One of the few things they have in common is their desire for Arius the Barbarian, an up-and-coming gladiator from Britannia. When Lepida discovers that Arius and Thea have fallen in love, she takes the whole Woman Scorned thing to a brand new level and separates the couple in devastating fashion.

A few years down the line, the two women cross paths again. This time, though, they meet on a far more level playing field as they both compete for the affections of the Emperor Domitian.

This is a fast-paced, grippingly readable novel that has a very filmic quality: the characters, dialogue, and scenes are so vivid that the action seemed to unfold like a film in my head. The love story between Thea and Arius is moving and involving. Very often, it is also beautifully written. Thea and Arius’s first meeting is described rather symbollically as occurring in a place

So dark. It could have been the beginning of the world. (p. 34)

At the other end of the scale, there is some less lyrical, but gloriously over the top writing. This is often dialogue uttered by the blackhearted Lepida Pollia, a character who could swap her stolla for shoulder pads any day of the week and become a Dynasty superbitch. Largely on the strength of gems like this:

Thank you ever so much, darling. Goodness, I’m sorry about the bruises, but you really did make me very angry. I’ll buy you something pretty tomorrow to make up for it. (p. 427)

Lepida also inspires other characters – in this case Aunt Diana – to utter deliciously waspish gems, such as

Say the word, and I’ll run the bitch over with my chariot. (p. 270)

Straight into my Top Ten one-liners with that one!

Mistress of Rome is a heady mix of poignant romance, high octane political intrigue, and gloriously overblown soap opera. Such a mix may not be for everyone but it was certainly for me: I am almost ready to start the third book in the series as I write this … And I think I have a new favourite author.

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