The House With the Golden Door, by Elodie Harper

Although they are very different types of books, everything I said in my last review about Tasha Suri’s The Oleander Sword is relevant here — this, too, is the second volume of a trilogy, so it is not the place to start; the important thing to tell you about The House With the Golden Door is that it is a magnificent follow up to The Wolf Den, a tale of enslaved sex workers in a Pompeii brothel. At the end of that engrossing novel, our heroine Amara has experienced a change for the better in her circumstances — she is a wealthy man’s mistress, a courtesan rather than a slave, with a greater degree of freedom. But of course she is not completely free — and still has many enemies and faces many dangers. And the greatest of these dangers might just be falling in love.

There’s some really thoughtful exploration here of the institution of slavery in the ancient Roman world — what it meant to be enslaved, what enslaved people could and could not do, and how even as people chafed under the cruelty of that system, it was so ingrained in the culture that many newly-freed slaves became slaveowners themselves. Some people have criticized this series for sounding “too modern” but I feel like it does that only with language, making ancient places and customs feel vivid and real and reminding us of our similarities to them — such as when characters refer to the places that sell hot meals to the public as “fast food stalls,” which might not have been exactly the term they used in Pompeii, but does emphasize that people 2000 years ago had the same urge to pick up hot food they didn’t have to cook themselves, as we do today! (I did balk a bit at one of the characters referring to something as happening “on Wednesday” — since that’s a day of the week that’s tied very specifically to a mythology the Romans would not have known or used — but lapses like that are rare). What Harper does so well, though, is avoid anachronism where it really matters — in people’s thoughts or attitudes, particularly in the way they view the institution of slavery. It would be so easy to impose modern sensibilities on a character like Amara, but she is completely a woman of her time, even if she swears in modern English.

The setting is not just a beautifully evocative picture of the ancient world in the first century CE — it’s also quite specifically Pompeii in the mid-70s CE. This is a great setting because of course the author is able to draw on so much of the Pompeiian graffiti that’s been preserved, not just as chapter epigraphs but as windows into how people thought about prostitutes, slaves, love, sex, and power. It’s also a time setting with an obvious looming bit of foreshadowing of which the characters are unaware … and that I’m sure is going to play a key role in the third volume of the series.

Beautiful, vivid, so engaging and powerful — I love this series and can’t wait for book 3.

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