Review: Daughters of Rome

And now for something completely different, a review of Daughters of Rome, a work of historical fiction with no magic in sight.

See? I can read things that aren’t SFF! I just choose not to most of the time, but every so often I need a change of scenery, so to speak, and this book was five bucks and had a pretty cover.

Man, I’m such a tool when it comes to pretty covers.

So, for those of you who haven’t read my earlier post entitled “Words! They Mean Things!” this book is set in Rome during the Year of the Four Emperors, a tumultuous time in Rome’s history when Emperors had a terrible habit of dying every few months. The book follows the lives of four women of the Cornelii: sisters Cornelia and Marcella, and their cousins Lollia and Diana. In a nutshell, Cornelia is the perfect Roman wife, married to Piso Licianus, the man everyone suspects will succeed Emperor Galba,  Marcella is the bookish one, Lollia collects husbands, and Diana is the free spirit who eats sleeps and breathes the chariot races.

If you know your Roman history, you know what’s going to happen next. In case you aren’t familiar with this period of Roman history, Piso comes down with a serious case of death by stabbing soon after being named heir. Cornelia, predictably, is devastated by the loss and shuts herself up in her room and throws vases at anyone who tries to enter. Meanwhile, Marcella shuts herself up in her room and writes histories of past Emperors, Lollia deals with her latest husband, and Diana passes time talking shop with the Reds faction of chariot racers.

To tell you the truth, this book just barely avoided the dreaded “Sturgeon’s 90%” label, because even though it has it’s flaws, it’s not really in the same class as Gatekeeper or Fifty Shades of Grey, but there are, as I see it, two major problems with this book.

The first problem is that the characters are all very one dimensional: Cornelia’s story is a “riches to rags” type shtick, the perfect wife who goes from nearly becoming Empress to a widow living in her brother’s house. Marcella is the bookish, intellectual observer type (more on this later), Lollia is a bit frivolous and is doted upon by her grandfather, and Diana’s life revolves around the stables. There’s little character development, for the most part, they stay consistent. This is also true for the secondary characters. In brief, Gaius, Cornelia’s brother and paterfamilias, is firmly crushed under his wife Tullia’s thumb. Tullia herself could charitably be called a “harpy” and is obsessed with propriety. There’s really no deviance from these character traits, and it gets really annoying after awhile.

The other issue I have with this book is (as I mentioned in the post linked above) the frequent use of anachronisms, which range from modern expressions to referring to stolae as “dresses” to some details which just didn’t sit right with me.

I’ve written before on suspending disbelief and how I can usually suspend disbelief to a point. I can accept, for instance, that historical fiction about women will probably be about more than constantly popping out babies, especially since Roman women had a fair degree of freedom (at least, when compared to places like Classical Athens). In this case, however, I went from “okay, I can accept that” to “wait, WTF?”

For instance, how is it that Diana can spend so much time around the Reds? Why does nobody really care that Lollia has been married and divorced or widowed five times? Why is Thrax wearing a cross and not a fish symbol? (I had to look this up, but the cross wasn’t widely used as a Christian symbol until Constantine.) Why does everyone just let Diana interrupt a wedding with a bloody sack containing a severed head in tow?

Don’t get me wrong, it makes for a good story, but overall there are several things that just didn’t sit right with me (also, I thought the “political intrigue” was lacking in subtlety) and it just didn’t feel very substantial, and it didn’t leave me wanting to read the other books in the series.

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