*Contains spoilers. Venture forward at your peril!*
Mistress of Rome is a historical novel set in the reign of the Emperor Domitian. It follows Thea, a Jewish slave escaped from the mass suicide at Masada, Lepida, her mistress, and Julia, the niece of the Emperor.
In the main, I enjoyed Mistress of Rome; it was easy reading and nicely pacey. Descriptions didn’t drag and it moved smartly through the action. There was also a lot of lovely historical detail. Quinn had obviously done her research on ancient Rome, and both Domitian’s administration and his (reported) darker proclivities. All of that was wonderful.
There were also some (unintentionally hilarious) glitches with the e-book version I read. In several places, the word ‘toga’ had somehow been replaced with the word ‘synthesis’, and any time it was supposed to be (I think) ‘white toga’, it said ‘lawn synthesis’. Very bizarre.
Why less than four stars, then? The narrative moved around from perspective to perspective freely, which was not necessarily such a bad thing, only it did so so quickly and through so many different characters that it wore slightly. But my main issue was with the characterisation of one of the main characters. As with Patricia Bracewell’s historical novels, also reviewed here, the book had a bit of a Madonna/whore complex. Mistress of Rome was slightly better for that in that Thea, the ‘good’ character, had a little more light and shade in her than Bracewell’s irritatingly irreproachable Emma, but Lepida, Thea’s antagonist, was a complete stereotype, a parody of the shallow, manipulative, sex-crazed woman that seems to haunt even female writers, still. Most irritatingly of all, a certain male character whom we are supposed to see as good and honourable is portrayed as completely weak to Lepida’s seductions and is promptly absolved of any responsibility.
When Lepida is eventually strangled to death by someone who her Machiavellian plotting has deeply wounded, this is presented as something that we ought to be pleased about, and think she got what she deserved. While Thea had a history, a complex emotional past, and a personality, Lepida never developed beyond a cardboard cut-out. Perhaps I ought to be more lenient, since I did enjoy the book in the main, but it is just so endlessly tiring to read books over and over again that present women along the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Where women who are anything less than kind are always flashing-eyed evil seductresses. It’s time for something new, and really it’s female authors who ought to be leading the way.
Rating: 3.5 stars