For many years I faithfully read Lindsey Davis’s entertaining mystery series set in ancient Rome and featuring informer Marcus Didius Falco and his lovely wife Helena Justina. I only stopped reading after about 20 books because I was a little tired of the situation. Still, I occasionally pick up one of the series.
So, when I saw that Davis wrote a straight historical novel about the reigns of Domitian and Vespasian and Titus (Domitian’s father and brother), this seemed perfect to me. The novel covers the whole of the Emperor Domitian’s reign and has as its main characters Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a Praetorian guard, and Flavia Lucilla, a hairdresser.
And this was a bit of a problem. I initially had a hard time getting into this novel, and one reason, I think, was the sort of bifurcated story of Domitian’s reign. Gaius Vinius and Flavia Lucilla are just too far removed from the action to integrate them successfully into this story. The result is that the bulk of the novel is exposition, pages and pages of the author telling us what’s going on rather than events being told through the story of its characters.
Later, the two main characters become more important to the general thrust of the novel, and it improves. But for most of the novel, we’re left with a two-pronged approach, Domitian’s reign on the one hand and the romance between the two main characters on the other. This approach even becomes three-pronged during several years when Gaius Vinius is prisoner in Dacia. I couldn’t help contrasting this novel with Colleen McCullough’s excellent Master of Rome series (about Sulla, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony), or even better, Robert Harris’s series about Cicero (reviews upcoming).
This isn’t to say that I didn’t eventually settle down and enjoy the novel. I did. I just didn’t think it was one of Davis’s best. Occasionally, a hint of her trademark sardonic humor appears, but overall, I feel that she struggles to keep the novel moving.