Empress of the Seven Hills, by Kate Quinn

Title: Empress of the Seven Hills
Author: Kate Quinn
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 512 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.75 stars
Spoilers: Mild for Mistress of Rome; there are also some things which are not spoilers if you know your Roman history, but which would be spoilers if you don’t, say, know what Emperors come in what order.

A sequel to Mistress of Rome (and, less directly, Daughters of Rome), Empress of the Seven Hills follows the fortunes of Vibia Sabina, daughter of a noble senator and a selfish spoiled aristocrat, and Vix, son of a barbarian chieftain and a Jewish slave, as their lives intersect and become inextricably entangled with the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Vix, feeling stifled by the smallness of life in Brigantia, heads back to Rome, initially taking work in the household of Marcus Norbanus, whom he knows for a good man. The little daughter of the household that he remembered has grown up into a complex and fascinating woman, forthright and unyielding, determined to take charge of her own destiny. They have an affair, but when she decides to marry Hadrian — the Emperor Trajan’s ward, though not yet his heir — trouble arises and they part ways. Vix joins the legions, aiming to be a great general someday. Sabina uses Hadrian as a way to get out and see the world.

The reader then follows Vix on campaign, where he becomes more acquainted with another of Sabina’s suitors, a young bookworm named Titus (a treat of a character if you know your history, but I’ll keep mum for those who may not). Vix takes up with a local girl in their fort town, who has a young son named Antinous (more historical foreshadowing), and the reader gets to enjoy a lot of the ins and outs of life in the Roman legion. Vix and Sabina collide again when Hadrian comes to serve as legate for Vix’s legion, and their interactions (and the repercussions of those actions) drive a lot of the story as it moves from Germania to Dacia to Parthia. Vix’s and Hadrian’s competing ambitions also fuel conflict; Emperor Trajan thinks highly of Vix and starts pushing him up the ranks, which Hadrian (and his ambitious sort-of-adoptive-mother Plotina) resent.

There are some problems in this book. Quinn continues to use shifting points-of-view in odd and somewhat inexplicable ways. I couldn’t tell you why Vix is written in the first person and everyone else is in the third; it makes very little difference, as we get plenty of introspection from the other characters whose narratives are in third-person. There’s also a gender issue with the viewpoints that it took me a day or so to figure out why it was troubling me: Quinn only ever lets us see Sabina, her heroine, when she’s in the same vicinity as the primary male characters. We almost never get Sabina on her own, really. She tells us that she travels, that she sees amazing things, that she works hard to better the lives of common people… but Quinn never lets us see that. We just hear about it after the fact. Whereas she trusts her male characters to hold our attention on their own: we see Vix with the legions and Titus on campaign and in Rome, but we never see Sabina having those adventures that we’re told are so critical to her. It’s a little troubling. I would have loved to have followed Sabina on her travels, to have experienced the broadening world along with her. Instead, I feel cheated.

There are also, as there were in the other two books, issues of historical inaccuracy. This still sort of bewilders me; Quinn has clearly Done The Research in so many aspects, and yet there are things she states as facts which just plain aren’t. These aren’t the items of authorial license — I’m not talking about shifting timelines around or condensing families. That sort of thing, I have no trouble with; authors have to do things like that in service of the story. I have trouble when people get social history blatantly wrong. It’s her perennial insistence that a gladiator died in every match (nonsense; they were too expensive to waste like that). Or when she claims that patricians and plebeians couldn’t intermarry (true in the earliest days of the Republic; false after 445 BC — almost 600 years before this book takes place). Probably these things wouldn’t be jarring to everyone, but since I’m sure a substantial part of her audience consists of classicists, it’s also probably not just me.

This book, though a sequel, doesn’t seem as strongly connected to the previous book as it ought to be. I didn’t read Mistress of Rome that terribly long ago, but details were escaping me, and Quinn never retreads that ground quite thoroughly enough. I think anyone coming to this book without having read Mistress of Rome at all would be a little lost, particularly with regards to Sabina’s and Vix’s parentage and why it matters. She also withholds the character list until the end of the book, which seems a bit odd to me (though that may, I credit, have been an editor’s or publisher’s choice).

And yet, despite those problems… it’s compelling. Quinn does something that’s actually pretty difficult: she gets you tremendously engaged with characters who are not always (or even often) likeable people. Sabina is a little too cool and calculating, and while it makes her fascinating, it also makes her difficult to empathise with. Vix is exactly the opposite: hot-headed and impulsive past the point where it would be charming, and borderline abusive at times. But I got wrapped up in them anyway. It’s part plot and part dialogue, I think; Quinn definitely has the knack for crafting voices, and that can go a long ways towards enlivening a character. The plot clips along through interesting times and political complexities. I want to know how they’re going to end up where they’re obviously going, and how they feel about it along the way.

Similar to Marcella in Daughters of Rome, Sabina strikes out for what she thinks she wants, and then finds out that the reality is less malleable to her will. Still, there’s something charming about her unconventional affectations, and something pitiable as she gets in over her head. Vix is a little bit tougher for me. I can tell I’m meant to love him, despite his all-too-obvious flaws — and yet there’s always something that gets in the way of it. His fury with Sabina is entirely disproportional to her supposed crimes against him, and it underscores his narrow ability to comprehend the world outside of his own head — not a trait I find attractive. He makes no attempt even to understand where Sabina’s coming from; he mostly just throws temper tantrums and storms out when she tries to explain that she’s acting in, really, the only way she can. She pushes the parameters of what her society allows in a woman, but that’s still not good enough for him, and he behaves pretty poorly as a result. He starts getting better (read: less of a total jerk) towards the end of the book, however, and I’ll be interested to see if his arc continues in that fashion, even as circumstances turn against him, as they seem sure to. He’s certainly an interesting character, but I can’t quite fall in love with him the way the book seems to expect me to (and I’m generally quite well-inclined towards the brash soldier archetype). And there is something compelling in their love story which goes beyond the mere attraction of opposites, in the way that they keep colliding into each other, even when they don’t mean to, even when they deliberately try not to. There’s a force behind it all, something tinging of destiny, and that does lend them some star-cross’d appeal.

There are quite likeable characters, though they get less screen time: Emperor Trajan is a personality you just can’t help but smile at, and then Titus and Sabina’s baby sister Faustina are both pretty great. For all Titus’s protestations that he’s a dull plodder, he’s a character with wonderful insight into the situations and people around him, and his steadiness is a necessary balance between the other extremes. Another thoroughly unlikeable character isn’t meant to be likeable: Plotina is a terrific villainess, particularly as Quinn draws us along as she progresses from just a typical overbearing mother-in-law type to a truly corrupt tyrant descending into real madness. Her son-in-law Hadrian, definitely an antagonist, is complex: he wants to be well-regarded and to be a popular and effective leader, but he is all too aware that he is just plain not a good person. He’s violent, selfish, and cruel — but also desperate for approval. Watching him keep all of that in check is an interesting ride, and I sometimes wish saw him through less biased perspectives — Vix and Sabina, who hate him, and Plotina, who idolises him, don’t precisely give the reader the fullest view of the character, as they are all unreliable narrators where he is concerned.

Overall, Empress of the Seven Hills is a solid entry into the genre of Roman historical fiction. Quinn paints a thorough picture of an under-examined period of history, and tackling it from characters of varying status and background allows her the room to really explore the details and nuances. I anticipate a sequel; the book ends with Vix literally informing the reader “But I’ll tell you that later,” so I can’t imagine Quinn isn’t going to continue the story. These books lack the epic scope and deft hand of the Masters of Rome series, but they’re still perfectly enjoyable.

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