Fiction: “Mistress of Rome” by Kate Quinn

mistress of romeAfter the much-welcomed violence break that was The Intern’s Handbook, I found myself picking up Mistress of Rome, another book I had purchased at that trip to Barnes & Noble. This title is the first in a series named on Goodreads as The Empress of Rome series – so, spoiler alert for who survives, I guess?

The main character is Thea, a slave in the Pollia household in Rome. Thea is the personal slave to Lepida Pollia, the spoiled daughter of the house. One day, the family goes to watch the gladiators, and Lepida uses Thea to bring love notes to the reigning champion gladiator, Arius. Except that Arius falls for Thea, and their romance blooms over the course of the season. When Lepida realizes that Thea has ‘stolen’ her gladiator, she abandons Thea to the streets.

Thea then gets purchased by a benevolent master who trains her in the art of singing and entertaining. He names her Athena, and she becomes the most sought-after singer for the season. She catches the eye of Paulinus, son of Marcus Norbanus, who married Lepida Pollia after the death of Paulinus’s mother. So now Thea has come back into Lepida’s circle, and Lepida’s envy of Thea hasn’t ceased one iota in the time that’s passed. That envy only grows exponentially when Domitian, the emperor, becomes enamored of Thea to the point that he makes her his mistress.

This book was basically a soap opera set in ancient Rome. The author helps us out by putting the cast of characters and the sects they fall into on the last page of the book, and it’s interesting that some of the characters were real people. But I wouldn’t read this book expecting to take away any actual Roman history. Seriously, it’s a soap opera.

Because Thea got pregnant by Arius but didn’t tell anyone, and her son, Vix, lives on the estate of her master. Just before Thea takes up with the Emperor, Domitian threatened Arius with death, so Arius had to escape Rome and ended up on the estate of the Emperor’s sister, who hates Domitian. So he hides as a gardener and befriends this slave kid that also escaped at the same time, named Vix. And it’s not until Thea comes to see Vix that she realizes that Arius is alive, but he’s also – GASP! – the gardener.

Then Lepida schemes to make herself the Emperor’s mistress, and apparently no one cares that the Emperor is a vicious, violent man intent on breaking the women he sleeps with. When Domitian finds out about Thea’s son, he decides to take Vix in exchange for Thea, and then there’s a plot between Thea and Arius and about forty other people to finally kill the Emperor.

The story is fine – if you like soap operas. I used to love All My Children, but as I was saying to my mother yesterday when The Young and the Restless came on (seriously, I’m not at home during the day, I forgot that soaps still existed) that if I found old clips on YouTube or something, I’m amazed at the dialogue, because it all sounds improvised. Like, how did I watch this for so long? Anyway, the characters are interesting, the story keeps the tension up so you get propelled along with the plot, but overall I thought the book was eh.

One thing that was jarring until I got used to it: the author switches the narration and point-of-view. A lot. We start off with Thea being a first-person narrator, but then halfway through the chapter it would switch to a third-person omniscient. There is a break halfway through the chapter, so don’t think it switches mid-paragraph or anything. But then the next chapter might start off with Lepida’s first-person narration, and then go back to third-person. It’s an interesting way to get into both characters’ heads, but it also makes me wonder why that couldn’t be accomplished by sticking with third-person narration the whole way through?

Oh well. Here’s the thing: when you look at it as an interesting soap opera set in a different time, place, and culture, the whole thing holds up. I read it quickly, so it definitely didn’t bore me. If I find the next book in the series at the library, I’ll probably pick it up. I don’t think it’s something I’ll buy again (sorry, author!), but we’ll see how the rest of the series goes.

Grade for Mistress of Rome: 2.5 stars

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