Mistress of Rome – Kate Quinn


*Contains spoilers. Venture forward at your peril!*

kate quinnMistress 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.

[*SPOILER AHEAD*] 

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

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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Run Alice Run – Lynn Michell

“Look, Sunshine, next week you ’ave a go at makin’ a very minimal contribution so that the rest of us don’t ’ave to tolerate you sitting there like left luggage. Okay?”
“I’m not very confident about expressing myself.”
“Of course you can bloody express yourself. You know how to open your mouth to flirt, don’t you?”

run alice runI’m very torn about this book. On the one hand, it’s a very rare thing – a literary novel (whatever that means) about female ageing and sexuality that pulls no punches, and it should be applauded for that. On the other, it could have used a really good edit. Certain sections are very long-winded, and – as demonstrated above – much of the dialogue doesn’t ring true.

Lynn Michell traces the story of Alice, her heroine, through her various relationships. Knocked back at every turn, her spirit is gradually crushed, and she begins to find some manic relief in shoplifting clothes. The novel opens with her being caught, and having to face a grilling from an unsympathetic and bullying police force. This is the first instance of what Michell is so good at: breaking down male/female relationships, and showing us where the power lies. Unfortunately, it’s also the first instance of Alice being an insufferable drip. Michell tries to mediate against this by introducing ‘interval’ sections throughout the book, in which Alice talks with her younger self, who we are told is confident, bold and fearless. Sadly, though, this doesn’t come across, and these parts are thus largely redundant. Because we never see Alice as a strong personality, it’s very hard to like her. She is the constant victim, beset on all sides by a swarm of pretentious, overbearing men.

First, there’s Julian, her teenage boyfriend who refuses to sleep with her for fear of compromising his A-levels (which seems unlikely, as does the suggestion that the other boys at school call her ‘Arte… Goddess of unexpected happenings’). Then there’s her affair with Oliver, the university professor who’s constantly cheating on his wife. There’s her brief marriage to political dissident Cal. And finally her second marriage to the creepy and withdrawn Stephen. On the surface, there’s a great story there, of a strong woman gradually being worn down. The problem is that there’s not enough differentiation between the male characters (they’re all bullies and snobs), and it’s hard to accept that Alice has ever been confident or assured, given that we never see it.

One thing that really works is Michell’s evocation of certain times and places. I spend a lot of time on the University of Birmingham campus, and it’s wonderful to trace back from the author’s description of it in the sixties and seventies, seeing what’s changed and what hasn’t. The other excellent bit of description is the crumbling Victorian tenements of Edinburgh, and Alice’s fear of being hemmed in by the lack of air and light, just as she is suffocated by her marriage to Stephen. The chapter headings are particularly good, all song titles from the past few decades (Let’s Spend the Night TogetherBreaking up is Hard to Do, etc.), and help to give a sense of the various periods covered. These elements, and the over-arching themes of the novel, are its saving graces.

Ultimately, though, Run Alice Run wasn’t for me. I couldn’t feel a real connection with the main character, and this undermined the many good things in the book.

Rating: 3 stars

profile2Reviewed by Nick

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