The second novel in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome series is a prequel, rather than a sequel, to the first volume (reviewed here). This reading order really works, however. It is intriguing to encounter much younger versions of characters we first met in Mistress of Rome. Moreover, the narrative tension stems from the fact that we often know what happens but don’t know how. We know that several relationships that seem very close in this novel will be torn asunder, and discovering exactly how such catastophic rifts come about is pretty gripping.
As with the first volume, Quinn takes huge dramatic licence here to produce a throughly entertaining novel that is (very) loosely based on historical events. The historical backdrop in this second novel is the Year of the Four Emperors. This bloody period unfolded after the death of Nero in AD 68 plunged Rome into Civil War. Power was subsequently held by Galba, Otho, and Vitellius before Vespasian restored relative stability in December 69. The violence and upheaval of this period is very vividly rendered here: Quinn’s gift is to make Ancient history feel immediate.
We view this period through the eyes of four cousins who all happen to be called Cornelia. Thankfully, the eldest aside, they are all known by nicknames. At the beginning of the novel, Cornelia is married to Piso and the couple fully expect Emperor Galba to announce Piso as his heir. Cornelia is thus Rome’s de facto First Lady. She revels in her role as the perfect patrician wife and longs for the day when she can finally call herself Empress. Her studious sister Marcella is, at the beginning of the novel at least, content to record history rather than to make it. We know from Mistress of Rome, however, that this will all change rather dramatically and that Marcella will become Domitian’s Empress. The path she takes to get there is the main focus of this novel – and the main cause of all of the bloodletting.
Cornelia and Marcella were historical figures; the other two cousins – Lollia and Diana – are wholly fictional. Lollia collects husbands like a Hollywood grand dame, whilst the magnificent Diana – my favourite of the cousins by a long chalk – cares only for horses and for her dreams of becoming a charioteer. Her story – and the fact that her happy ending doesn’t involve a man – endows the novel with a pleasingly feminist aspect.
All in all, I enjoyed this prequel almost as much as Mistress of Rome. I say ‘almost’ as there were times when I struggled. After a tremendously gripping Prologue, the novel proper took a little while to warm up, largely because I found it tricky to distinguish the four cousins at first. Once I’d managed to get this straight, though, I found myself flying through the pages like one of Diana’s much adored chariot teams. This series offers quality escapism whilst providing a few intriguing insights into a tumtultuous period of Roman history.