Sophia McDougall, Romanitas. 2005. Orion Books. Pp. 588+. ISBN 0752877097. £6.99

Reviewed by Djibril

This sweeping, ambitious book is the debut novel by British writer and poet McDougall, and the first part of a planned trilogy. It is an alternative history on the grandest scale: the point of departure from our own timeline is the death of the Roman Emperor Pertinax in 192 CE (945 AUC). As Pertinax survived the assassination attempt in this timeline, he was never succeeded by the much-maligned Septimius Severus, and instead reformed the Senate, the Pretorians, and the Empire so successfully that Rome never declined and fell, and two thousand years later the Empire is still dominating the world (including Africa, much of Asia, and most of the Americas). The history of the Roman Empire which is presented as an appendix to this volume is of interest to Roman historians as well as alternative history aficionados.

Marcus Novius Faustus is the son of the murdered heir to the Roman Empire; his closeness to the throne and his own controversial attitude to slavery (in a world in which abolition seems never to have been mooted), puts his life in danger. Sulien is a slave, a talented doctor with strange powers of healing—again we see how different the world of the novel is from our own by the lack of damning superstition at this power—who has been falsely accused of rape and therefore summarily sentenced to death. Una is his sister, slightly pathological and psycho-sensitive, a slave-girl damaged by her experiences which are never fully described to us. She uses her abilities to rescue Sulien from the brink of a cruel crucifixion. All three protagonists are soon fleeing across Europe seeking a legendary slave sanctuary, and it is a matter of time before their paths, and their fates, cross.

The focus of the novel, therefore, as so often in alternative history tales, is on one aspect of the Roman Empire that we identify as different to our own culture: in this case slavery. It is hard to imagine that the Empire would have evolved over two thousand years without attitudes to this practice changing significantly, but okay, this is speculative fiction, and this is the aspect of society that the author has chosen to focus on. The picture of world politics is also interesting, with a powerful Japanese empire in the east the only threat to Roman world hegemony—although there is little sign of the Roman absorption of, for example, Indian, African, or American culture. The internal politics of the Empire is nicely drawn, with examples of hypopcrisy, political face-saving, the occasional powerlessness even of the absolute emperor, and the power of corrupt multinational corporations, as in our own world and no doubt ancient Rome itself. The different mores and values of Pagan Rome are well-illustrated, and refreshingly lightly handled (the lack of superstitious condemnation of Sulien and Una's powers being a fine example; this is just never mentioned). The occasional nod to monotheism—and the unnecessary (even if dismissive) reference to Christianity—are only slightly distracting.

This is a long book, and progress is sometimes slow. It takes a while to get to know the characters—and even longer to like them. But with persistence the characters become both sympathetic and convincing. What may early in the book seem like structural problems and loose ends are mostly tied up by the closing chapters—a process that is in turns satisfying and over the top. The protagonists often bumble through almost by chance rather than executing plans expertly; this comes across as more realistic than having infallible heroes, but the rôle of luck is sometimes a little too much for credibility.

There are also some very real technical problems with the writing in this novel: the prose is not always as smooth and readable as one might expect from a volume that has received the attentions of a professional publisher and editor. The most troubling feature is the author's propensity for head-hopping: the point-of-view character sometimes changes even in mid-paragraph, often in quick succession. This is distracting enough at the best of times, but when some characters are effectively psychic it can be seriously disorienting.

On the whole, however, this is a very good book with some structural and stylistic flaws (but do we not prefer flawed genius to flawless mediocrity?). I feel it is certainly worth following up the sequels for the continuation of the saga.

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