Thea is a slave girl, one of the few survivors of a mass suicide in Judea. Arius is a gladiator, fighting for survival and revenge. Both are outcasts in a hostile world until they find comfort together. But they are pawns in the games of the rich and powerful in Rome and their happiness is short lived. When a mysterious Jewish singer, Athena, becomes the most powerful woman in Rome, Mistress to the Emperor, few realise the old hostilities which simmer, waiting to erupt.
The plot of Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn was simple, yet well paced enough to be compelling. It encompassed the full time spectrum of the novel, a feat many writers seem to struggle with, following Thea from being a 13 year old girl, to a woman of approximately 39 and tracking the lives of many characters in between.
In many ways the narrative assisted this, chapters being sectioned according to who is the active character in the story. I did find the way the author did this very odd. For example, in a chapter which was assigned to Thea, you would have Thea giving a first person account of events in one section, then in another section of the same chapter, the author would suddenly switch to a third person narrative, though still focussing on Thea as the action occurs. This may have allowed the author to make the plot tight and coherent, but as a reader I found it moderately irritating, as I had to stop and get my bearings, deciding which character was being narrated or described this time. Annoying.
The writing wasn’t a mastery of majestic prose though I don’t think it needs to be in a story about Gladiators where the focus is the action, if any particular detail catches the eye, it means something has been crammed in awkwardly. In this case it was the descriptions of the women’s clothing. I’m guessing the writer had researched this in detail and was damn well going to prove it. It wasn’t just used to embellish the story or highlight the status difference between characters at one point in the story. No. Every time a female character was mentioned you had a full description of her outfit, jewellery and hairstyle. It added pages to the book, but little to the story. The decadence and chaos of Rome would have come through without this.
The characterisation made this Rome credible. Despite the back drop of Rome; ideas about slavery and freedom; the role of fate and destiny in the life of man- this is a novel about people. The characters are working examples of the human condition. A heroine who does not crumble in the face of heart break, a hero seeking his own death, a man who needs to be feared by the people he loves scratch the surface and there is a bleak darkness to the novel are the driving force behind this story. There is a cloying hopelessness as many are destroyed by their own actions or those of others, but the characters, endearing or repulsive, make you need to follow, need to learn what will happen.
My feeling is this book was undersold by the publishing company because it’s a difficult niche. Men read books about gladiators, but here you have a historic novel which tells the female experience and doesn’t lapse into bodice ripping stereotypes. Hard to sell when the market is saturated with chic lit and teenage vamp fiction. It’s definitely worth a read on your commute or at the poolside.