The third volume in Kate Quinn’s Ancient Rome series is a direct sequel to the first, Mistress of Rome (reviewed here).
In this installment (which is published as Empress of the Seven Hills in the US), we follow a second generation of characters. Vercingetorix – Vix to his friends – the son of Mistress of Rome‘s protagonists, Arius and Thea, narrates a large portion of the novel. We reencounter the gruff former gladiator when he returns to Rome from Britannia as an ambitious 18-year-old looking to rise to the rank of Centurion. He is quickly reunited with his erstwhile childhood friend, Vibia Sabina, the daughter of Thea’s late arch enemy, Lepida Pollia. The love-hate relationship between Sabina and Vix is at the heart of this novel. Their love story is a pleasingly unconventional one: it is not a straightforward romance by any means but does become rather touching as the novel draws to a close and a genuine friendship seems to emerge.
Sabina and Vix’s story takes place against the now-familiar backdrop of political scheming and soap opera-esque shenanigans. This time, the action unfolds during the rule of Trajan, a minor character in Mistress of Rome who emerges as a much-loved Emperor and skilled miltary commander here. Vix and Sabina are as united by their love for Trajan as they are by their love for each other; perhaps even more so.
The chief antagonist here is Trajan’s empress, the aptly-named Plotina, who schemes to have her husband adopt her much-loved but highly unpopular ward Hadrian as his heir. As with the other novels in this series, much of the narrative tension comes from the fact that we know what happens in the end, but aren’t too sure how these events will come to pass.
Much of the novel is set outside Rome, following Vix as he fights in Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia and Parthia. It is perhaps for this reason that I found Empress of Rome less compelling than the previous novels in this series. The military campaigns just don’t interest me as much as the political intrigue does. There was also something a little disjointed and episodic about this novel, which follows Vix from when he is 18 to when he is about 35. The shifts from Vix’s first-person narration to the third-person narratives focusing on the other characters were rather jarring, too.
There is much to enjoy here, though, particularly Vix and Sabina’s relationship, which is refreshingly unsentimental. For me, though, the highlight was the introduction of a new character, the historical figure of Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus. If you know your Roman history (which, I have to admit, I didn’t really until reading this series), you will know what fate has in store for Titus. He is first introduced to us as a shy, awkward teenager. By the time we part ways with him, he is a man of real stature – an influential (not to mention flilthy rich) patrician tipped for power. This charming, wise, self-deprecating, Cato-quoting treasure joins the (admittedly fairly crowded) ranks of Fictional Characters I Have Fallen in Love With. Vix might be the hero of this novel but, for me, TItus is its heart.
I will be having a little break from this series to refresh my reading palate a little, but am already looking forward to reading the final volume, Lady of the Eternal City, in the not-too-distant future. Not least because Empress of Rome concludes with one hell of a cliffhanger …