by Sophia McDougall
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Sophia McDougall's debut novel, Romanitas, takes a common theme in alternate history, the survival of the Roman Empire to modern times, and makes it appear as if it could actually happen. Her Roman Empire has some of the same trappings of our modern world, such as cars and television, but also is true to the imperial practices which characterized the Roman Empire.
Rather than focusing on the survival of the empire itself, her story looks at the lives of individuals. One of them, Marcus Novius Faustus happens to be the nephew of the current emperor, Titus Novius Faustus Augustus, and the others, brother and sister Sulien and Una, are slaves escaped from Britannia. McDougall handles their crossing paths well and in a believable manner.
Sulien and Una try to fit into this world, made more difficult by the fact that each has special powers. Sulien is an almost mystical healer, and Una can sense the thoughts of those around her. Meanwhile, Marcus, who should be the ultimate insider, is in hiding following the deaths (and possible murders) of his parents and his belief that he is the next on the hit list. Because Marcus lacks the supernatural powers inherent in Una and Sulien, he is the most accessible of the trio to the reader, despite being a member of the imperial family.
Trust doesn't come easy for the escaped slaves or for Marcus, however they find themselves needing to help each other, even as they attempt to betray each other. The fact that Marcus is intent on carrying out his father's goal of a place for slaves to be freed, is something which can only help Sulien and Una, although at the same time it may be the very reason Marcus is a fugitive from his own uncle.
The story starts out well, but it isn't long before McDougall's pace slacks off. She manages to regain her tempo several times through the novel, but in each instance she loses it again, resulting in a very uneven story. Excitement is replaced by bland exposition, which is, in turn, replaced by heart-racing action. With luck, in her future novels, McDougall, whose previous work has been in the theater, will be able to even out the pacing a little more.
Romanitas is the first of a trilogy, set to be followed by Rome Burning in 2007. As such, it doesn't come to an entirely satisfying conclusion as Marcus and his quest are in no way complete. In Romanitas, McDougall has laid the groundwork for an interesting look not only at Roman society, but also our own world, to which it holds up a mirror, demonstrating that for all our aspirations to civilization, we remain, in some ways, barbaric and backwards.
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