I’ve been debating whether to review this one for a while. To review this book means me revealing, quite publicly, my weakness for a particular genre - namely historical, romantic fiction. No, I hasten to add now, not the Mills and Boon kind of historical fiction, but real authentic, richly described historical settings mixed with strong characters and good storylines - and, inevitably, there’s some sort of romance in there too, although this isn’t something I necessarily seek out. It may not be the hard-hitting, high-brow stuff with political and philosophical undertones and layers of symbolism that I (perhaps rather annoyingly) usually read, but it has to be said, I love historical fiction for its relaxing escapism - and, while Philippa Gregory has made it ‘ok’ to like historical fiction, I don’t often admit to reading much of the genre beyond that. But when I saw Mistress of Rome on the shelf, I knew that, as someone who loves Roman history, I had to read it…
Thea is a slave girl from Judea, a tough and strong character who serves her master’s daughter, an obnoxious young girl of a similar age to the teenage slave, named Lepida Pollia. We learn about her life as a slave girl first, and then we see her visit the arena to see the latest, most popular gladiator in the city - Arius. Nicknamed “The Barbarian”, Thea ends up having a chance and forbidden meeting with the gladiator at a dinner party hosted by Lepida Pollia and her family (…can you see where this is going by any chance?)
Yes, no matter how it’s described, the opening few chapters seem like a predictable cliché - and it would have been just that and nothing more had it not been for a few saving graces that encourage the reader to work past the predictability to discover some powerful, twisting plotlines further into the book.
One of these is Thea herself. She is a strong heroine, a little foolish but determined, and while she may be again a little clichéd, she has a convincing edge to her character. Thea has had a hard life, and she is a product of all that she has experienced, which get quite delicately touched upon throughout the book. And then there is the book’s opening scene, which make this a different read to your average historical fiction; we see Thea, crouched over a bowl, cutting her wrist to make herself bleed, to comfort herself and regain some control over her world. Yes - this book just got quite interesting, at least in terms of the subtleties of the character of Thea.
And so throughout the first half of the book, we see Thea and Arius develop a clumsy, intense and actually quite touching relationship; and then the book twists and turns as they are separated by a jealous Lepida Pollia who wants the gladiator for herself and decides that if she can’t have him, Thea certainly can’t - well, of course, any good romance would demand that the characters have to undergo the pain of forced separation, so that’s no great surprise. We watch as the years go on and Thea becomes Athena, a singer to and then Mistress of the cruel emperor Domitian, who slowly destroys her soul and sanity. And all the while, of course, she longs for her lost love, Arius, and wonders if there can ever be a way out of the life she has been sucked into.
Not an intellectual read, no, but I don’t want this to seem a negative review at all; I enjoyed this book, and it exquisitely described the city of Rome in such vivid detail that I actually could half believe I was there. Thea seemed, albeit a little clichéd, believable in the main, and just so eminently likeable that I wanted to know what happened to her; add to that Arius, an enigmatic character who, although deserving of more individual attention than he was given, was intriguing throughout.
There were negative aspects of the book, of course - the predictability at times, and in particular the character Lepida Pollia, who was thoroughly unlikeable and one-dimensional, portrayed without a flicker of a redeemable quality. But, in general, this was an atmospheric read; captivating and easy, reading Mistress of Rome is something akin to a guilty pleasure - great fun, not entirely serious or meaningful, but addictive and ultimately feel-good.
Would I recommend this book for anyone after a serious read? Not particularly; it is well-written, enjoyable, but there seems to be little meaning beyond the last page. I read this book on holiday, managing to absorb all 529 pages of this book, cover to cover, in around 48 hours while relaxing at the poolside - I just couldn’t put it down once I’d started.
My conclusion: read this for a healthy dose of escapism, a dash of romance and some beautiful descriptions - don’t expect much more than that, and you’ll find a very enjoyable read in Quinn’s Mistress of Rome.