This is going to be kind of a weird review because I can find an awful lot of things to criticize about Mistress of Rome and its sequel Empress of the Seven Hills, but at the end of the review I’m going to tell you that I did thoroughly enjoy reading them. I’m not such a literary snob that I can’t enjoy a book that has some obvious flaws.
It helps that these books are set in a time and place I really enjoy — the second-century Roman Empire, beginning in the reign of Domitian. The hero and heroine of Mistress of the Seven Hills are Thea, a Jewish slave girl who is the last survivor of Masada, and Arius, a British slave/gladiator. Through a series of plot twists, they meet, fall in love, and then are tragically separated. Thea ends up as Domitian’s mistress, and the emperor is, unfortunately, a sadistic, abusive whackjob. Arius ends up as Rome’s most celebrated gladiator. True love will win out, of course — this is not, strictly speaking, a romance novel, but it employs a lot of romance tropes — but not before the most over-the-top villainness of all time tries to bring Thea down, Arius becomes a Karate-Kid-style gladiator mentor to his own son without knowing who he is, and the emperor gets assassinated.
Neither Thea nor Arius is entirely convincing as a character: they’re both a bit too predictable, and so is their relationship. As for the historical background, it’s full of interesting information but doesn’t always seem completely real. Even for someone like me who has a high tolerance for modern-sounding dialogue in historical fiction (when someone says “OK,” I usually just assume they were saying whatever the Latin equivalent of “OK” was), the language here often sounds too casual and sloppy. An especially egregious example is when one character says “Jeez” — at a time when Christians were still a small persecuted sect, I don’t think anyone was using the name of Jesus as a mild slangy swear word.
Despite all this, I enjoyed the story enough to proceed straight to the sequel (there’s also a prequel, but I wasn’t interested in going back in time) which is the story of Arius and Thea’s son Vix. Vix is a much more complex and interesting character than either of his parents, and so are the other major characters in this novel — Vibia Sabina, who loves Vix but marries someone more on her social level, and Titus, one of Sabina’s unsuccessful suitors. I don’t for one second believe all of Sabina’s adventures, not to mention her attitudes, would be possible — she’s the classic twenty-first century woman transported to a historical novel — but I enjoyed reading them anyway.
As a side note, Mistress of Rome was the second novel I read this summer about a survivor of Masada (the first being the much more literary, and much more focused on the Masada story, The Dovekeepers). In both novels, a teenaged girl deals with her emotional pain by self-harming: cutting herself. Was this unfortunate modern practice really common in the ancient world, or are the authors projecting modern sensibilities back two thousand years? If so, it certainly wouldn’t be the only time for Kate Quinn.
So if you like serious, literary historical fiction that’s meticulously attentive to accuracy and absolutely believable — you probably won’t enjoy these books. But I did. They were fun, easy to read, and yes, I’ll be getting the next one when it comes out!