Saturday, April 14, 2012

Empress of the Seven Hills by Kate Quinn

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: April 13, 2012

Powerful, prosperous, and expanding ever farther into the untamed world, the Roman Empire has reached its zenith under the rule of the beloved Emperor Trajan. But neither Trajan nor his reign can last forever... Brash and headstrong, Vix is a celebrated ex-gladiator returned to Rome to make his fortune. The sinuous, elusive Sabina is a senator’s daughter who craves adventure. Sometimes lovers, sometimes enemies, Vix and Sabina are united by their devotion to Trajan. But others are already maneuvering in the shadows. Trajan’s ambitious Empress has her own plans for Sabina. And the aristocratic Hadrian — the Empress’s ruthless protégé and Vix’s mortal enemy — has ambitions he confesses to no one, ambitions rooted in a secret prophecy. When Trajan falls, the hardened soldier, the enigmatic empress, the adventurous girl, and the scheming politician will all be caught in a deadly whirlwind of desire and death that may seal their fates, and that of the entire Roman Empire...

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I'm harder on historic fiction writers than I have any right to be. Honestly, I hold them to a higher standard than authors of any other genre. Those who have impressed me in the past have it even worse. Sorry guys, but if you want to be a top dog you gotta earn it. Quinn has earned it. Her debut piece, The Mistress of Rome, blew me away. Her follow-up, Daughters of Rome, proved the achievement was no fluke and confirmed her place as one of my favorite authors. Naturally, I was on pins and needles waiting for the release of her third book, Empress of the Seven Hills and I'm happy say she didn't disappoint.

I don't think anyone can read the book without falling for Vix. True, he is rough around the edges, uncouth and prone to intense emotional outbursts, but he is also loyal, determined, dedicated and ambitious. This isn't prince charming. He has faults, he suffers from indecision and stumbles through life's trials just like the rest of us. Supporting cast member Titus is everything Vix isn't. A mild-mannered academic with no ambition for fame or glory, his steady countenance is a perfect foil for our male lead. It took a bit longer, but he grew on me. It will be interesting to see where Quinn takes him before the end. I am similarly eager to see how Quinn will approach Hadrian's relationship with a particular young man, but that is a topic for another day. I can't begin to explain how she does it, but Quinn has once again constructed remarkable realism with little more than ink on on the page.

The female cast is equally well-crafted though I can't say I am particularly fond of any of them. Plotina's Juno complex is cringe worthy, but it was her annoying obsession with Hadrian that grated my nerves. Mirah's obvious disdain for anyone but 'her people'  is nothing short of disgusting and Demetra's simpering housewife routine paints her as little more than a milksop. I couldn't even bring myself to care for Sabina until late in the novel when her marriage began to crumble. The educated daughter of privilege who flit from one 'interesting' enterprise to the next didn't do it for me, but as her husband's tolerance waned she started showing some real promise. Again, I find myself wondering where Quinn will take the character. The lone exception here is Faustina. Maybe it is because she is introduced as a toddler and grows to an independently minded young woman over the course of the story, but where I have only lukewarm interest in her older sister, I am very intrigued by Quinn's depiction of the future empress.

I'll be the first to admit that last paragraph doesn't sound too great, but I want you to really think about what I wrote. Poor characterization is marked by a reader's indifference. The fact that I wanted to slap most of the women upside the head at some point proves I am anything but. So I don't want to sit and drink wine or barley water with most of these ladies. Sue me. There is no rule that says a character has to be likable to be good and personally I think Quinn should be applauded for crafting such a diverse cast. 

Unlike its predecessors, Empress of the Seven Hills takes us on the road. During Trajan's campaigns we see a less well known aspect of Ancient Rome, the life of a common soldier. There are moments, but having been a military wife I appreciate that the bulk of Quinn's material is spent on the weeks and months between battles as well as the trials and tribulations of both men and women who opt for such a lifestyle.

Gosh this review is getting long, but I got a lot to say. I love that Quinn includes such detailed Historical Notes. Not every author feels an obligation to define fact from fiction let alone explain why they chose to alter historic fact. I find I am much more inclined to forgive an author who exhibits such respect for their subject matter and readers than I would an author who neglects such entries in anticipation of a royalty check. See my comments on The House of Special Purpose if you need further explanation. 

Quinn's next book is set some fourteen hundred years after Empress of the Seven Hills during an intriguing period of the Renaissance. While I am excited for the release I can't help feeling sad that it will be some time before we see the continuing story of Vix and Sabina under Emperor Hadrian's rule. 

Another excellent read from a very talented writer. Go out, find a copy and enjoy!

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When I was thirteen, an astrologer told me I'd lead a legion someday, and a legion would call me Vercingetorix the Red. Astrologers are usually horseshit, but the funny little man was right about everything... But why didn't the astrologer tell me any of the important things? Why didn't he tell me that Emperors can be loved, but Empresses are only to be feared? Why didn't he tell me I'd have to kill the best friend I ever had - on the orders of the worst man I ever knew? And why the hell didn't he tell me about the girl in the blue veil I met the same day I got all these predictions?... "Girl in blue, beware." What would that have cost him?
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