Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This wants to be an epic but it only achieves soap opera, one level up from romance. The best thing about this book was one of those characters you love to hate. Perhaps it says something about me that the plotting, grasping slut was the character I most got into.
It’s a good premise, building a fictional story around the historical fact of an astrologer’s prediction of the day and hour of Emperor Domitian’s death. Unfortunately, the characters are flat, moved around and doing things to bring about a specific end. We don’t know much about them as people. What motivated Lepida, what was the black hole inside her that made her so utterly evil? How did Thea actually feel about being betrayed over and over, bought and sold and forced to sell her body, ripped away from her lover and from her son?
The multiple POV’s are clumsily written. Sometimes Thea was first person and sometimes Lepida was, but I wasn’t hearing from either of them; I was hearing from a narrator who was pretending to be them, by turns. Then it would go to third-person omniscient-narrator POV for no apparent reason. If we’re going to do all this switching around, I would have loved to hear from other characters, such as Marcus Norbanus, Arius, Vibia Sabina (who is denoted as an actual historical figure; if this is same Vibia Sabina who became Empress to Hadrian, her parents have been fictionalized), the Empress (Domitia Longina, I assume; she is never actually named), Paulinus, who is supposedly also an actual historical figure; I can’t find him, and that may be because (as other reviewers have pointed out) his name has been butchered. So much potential there lost by just shoving them into standard slots: Cuckold. Little Girl Who Saves the Day. Ice Queen. Sap. Gladiator. Slave. Juvenile Delinquent. Joan of Arc. Mean Girl. Two dimensions only.
The sense of place was not exceptional, mainly expressed by women constantly draping their stolas, and the dining couches and Praetorian guards on almost every page.
Despite all this the story itself was decent, until the scene where Lepida’s scheming against Thea bears fruit. (That is not a spoiler; Lepida’s scheming runs through the whole book, beginning at page 3.) At that point it took a hard left turn and everything became transparently contrived and very silly.
This would normally be a one-star read for me, but I did care enough to finish it, for a second star.
If you like romance-y books with bits of history splashed around as stage setting, this will do. If you like actual Roman history and characters with depth, read Julian or I, Claudius or even I Am Livia.