Monthly Archives: December 2013

Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day, by Philip Matyszak

Title: Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a DayAncientRome5DenariiDay
Author: Philip Matyszak
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 144 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

This book is a great resource, though it isn’t quite what I’d expected or hoped for. Matyszak writes with his usual felicity and accessibility, but this book is not, as the title and cover might led you to believe, quite so similar to his Legionary or Gladiator. The premise does not really drop you into the role of ancient tourist. Rather, the book provides a snapshot view of Rome-at-a-glance, somewhere around the year 200.

And it just that — a glance view, with plenty of anecdotes and trivia, but not a particularly deep exploration. I do like the book’s organization, which takes you through things to do, places to go, and social customs to observe. Matyszak pays special attention to the geography of the city of the Caesars: what’s on which hill (temples, temples, and, oh yeah, some more temples), what you’ll find in the Subura (crime and prostitutes, mostly), what’s across the river (nothing you want to be a part of), which forums to hit for what activities and shopping excursions. He stresses a lot of the activities most important to Roman social life at all strata — bathing, eating, gossiping, going to the races. Roman entertainment can be beautifully poetic or utterly depraved, though Matyszak does unpack the goings-on at the Colosseum — not always lethal combat between gladiators (who were, after all, expensive investments), not necessarily to everyone’s taste (Romans throughout the centuries voiced their distaste for the more gruesome activities — though enough still approved, clearly, that they kept it up), and Christians pretty much never got thrown to the lions (they got crucified instead, because that’s the Roman sense of humor there in a nutshell). He notes the architectural genius of the colosseum, able to fill in 20 minutes and disperse as quickly, using techniques that stadium-builders still employ today.

Matyszak also does a great job of discussing the integration of religion with Roman life — all-important and yet not terribly pious, at least to a modern point of view. The gods are everywhere. Literally, everywhere. Every hill, every valley, every home, every crossroads. Celebrations in their honor dictate the movement of the calendar. Auspices and astrology inform political life. And yet the gods don’t actually care if you believe in them. So long as the rituals are observed, they’ll hold up their end of the bargain, and you can go on to merrily worship anyone you choose. “Confessing a deep love for a particular god,” however, as Matyszak notes, “is superstitio and the person concerned is probably emotionally disturbed.”

Though the humor in Ancient Rome in 5 Denarii a Day is not as laugh-out-loud funny as I found Legionary to be, or even the Classical Compendium, Matyszak’s sly humor still shines through periodically. Some of the best bits of the book, though, actually showcase the humor of the ancients, every bit as dry and ironic as the best of the BBC. Matyszak liberally sprinkles the book with quotes from Plautus, Cicero, Tacitus, Plutarch, and others — and even when those are from “serious” sources, they often highlight the absurdity of social or political life. They also provide insight into those great geological details about what sort of people you’d find in what places.

Overall, this is a nice resource to have — not particularly comprehensive, but an excellent overview, and certainly inspirational for me. There are all sorts of fun tidbits to mine and to research further. This would be a great addition to any Rome-enthusiast’s bookshelf.

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Twelfth Night Secrets, by Jane Feather

Title: Twelfth Night SecretsTwelfthNightSecrets
Author: Jane Feather
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 257 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.25 stars

After Harriet’s brother, an English spy, dies while on assignment in France, the government taps Harriet to find out if his former partner, Julius Forsythe, Earl of Marbury, was the double-agent who killed him. Harriet’s job is made easier since her grandfather invited Marbury to spend Christmas at their country home, along with a flock of relatives. It’s made harder when she starts falling for Julius, who is charming, clever, and good with children.

This book is largely inoffensive, but unfortunately, it’s also not particularly memorable. I also feel like it’s the wrong length. This either needed another hundred pages to be standard romance novel length, so that background information and character developments could have more explanation, or else it needed to be a hundred pages shorter and an entry in a collection rather than a stand-alone, because as-is, it feels like Feather spends a lot of time re-treading material. There’s a lot of reiteration in the middle that doesn’t actually further either the plot or the emotional story.

The book is also mis-sold by its jacket material. This isn’t “spy vs spy”. It’s “spy vs totally inept and inexperienced not-spy”. The back cover tries to sell Harriet as a suave, sophisticated agent of the crown, but she’s… really, really not. She passed on mail from her brother. That was the extent of her involvement. So it beggars belief that the British government would look to her to try and uncover a double agent, and then she pretty well bungles her supposed investigation.

The story is cute enough but the characters lack depth — something else that might’ve been fixed with a longer book and a better use of pages. There is a nice reversal at the end, but mostly, after dragging for a two hundred pages, when things finally do start happening, it all feels rushed. Overall — meh.

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Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

Title: Cold Magic (Spiritwalker #1)
Author: Kate ElliottColdMagic
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 528 pages
Genre: alternate history fantasy/sci fi… oh gods, see below
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3 stars

This book was… odd.

Cold Magic is, by the author’s description, “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons”. Catherine Hassi Barahal is an orphan raised by her aunt and uncle, besties with her cousin Beatrice. They live in what is geographically England, except that the Ice Age never fully ended, so it’s still connected by marshy land to the Continent. It’s also super-racially-blended, with bloodlines from Celts and Romans and Africans all mixing together in a complex and interweaving social hierarchy. Cat and Bee are enrolled in college amid a growing conflict between the mages who seem to run Europe and the revolutionary faction that seeks to supplant magic with steam technology. What kind of magic? Well, lots of kinds. There’s cold magic and fire magic and druids and bards and other things. There might be the Fae, by way of seelie and unseelie courts, but their existence is unproven. Cat has a mysterious sort of magic which gives her super-hearing, a certain level of invisibility, and other abilities that reveal themselves through the course of the book. So does Beatrice. Oh and there are “trolls”, who come from North America and have evolved to intelligence and culture. The plot initially looks like it’s going to explore Cat and Beatrice’s lives inside this construct, but then it takes a hard left turn when a cold mage turns up at the Barahal household claiming the eldest daughter as his bride, and Cat gets shoved at him with literally no explanation. The rest of the book is Cat having no more idea than the reader what the hell is going on. It has something to do with her family, who may or may not have been spies two thousand years ago, or twenty years ago, or now. It has something to do with her magic, and something to do with her cousin’s. It has something to do with the escape of a Napolean-figure who’s actually from Spain who tried to conquer Europe a few years earlier. It has something to do with sabertooth tigers. It has something to do with airships. The one thing really driving the plot is that Cat has to get back to Bee before the winter solstice so that the cold mages don’t claim her instead.

That feeling you’re having right now, trying to make sense of that summary? Is what the entire book feels like.

I very much wanted to like this book. I read it on recommendation from a good friend whose taste I trust, and it has a lot of elements that were enticing to me. But the execution was… not what I had hoped. The result of Elliott throwing all of those aforementioned genres in a blender isn’t a well-processed smoothie — it’s a chunky, uneven mess. I spent the entire book trying to figure out if my reading comprehension had suddenly taken a leave of absence, or if the book was really just that confusingly written. Since I’m reasonably certain I’m still in possession of all the wits I started last week with, I have to assume it’s the latter.

What’s so frustrating is that there are a lot of good ideas here. (The three stars I’m giving this book come a lot from just the sheer credit of that). The Afro-Celtic angle? Awesome. I love the route that alternate history has taken here, with Rome and Carthage fighting to a standstill rather than going the Carthago delenda est road. I love the idea that the Mali Empire had a diaspora that caused Africa to colonize Europe, rather than the other way around. The blending of cultures has so much potential, and the fantasy and sci-fi genres in general could do with a lot more of that. I also love the idea of magic and science engaging in a horrible struggle for dominance, and the political and social consequences for each side are such fruitful avenues for exploration. But somehow, all of these elements just totally failed to synthesize — and I rather suspect at least part of the problem is that Elliott tried to do too many things in the same novel. The dinosaur-descendants, for example — a fascinating concept, but thrown into this novel, it’s definitely just one tangent too many. The Regency era angle is underused to the point where it may as well not exist (to anyone wondering why it’s called Regency if the year is supposedly 1837, they’re counting in “Augustan Years”, and he became emperor in 27 BCE — so the equivalent year is really 1810, not 1837. Not that you would know that from reading the book, since Elliott never explains it). The blending of cultures, while super-intriguing, is also poorly explored — it’s hard to get a clear idea of exactly what melded where and with whom and so forth. The world clearly has a shape, but the reader never gets to grasp what it is. There’s also the problem I have with A Song of Ice and Fire, which is that cultural identities wouldn’t stay the same for 2000 years no matter where you are, particularly with the amount of blending that’s apparently gone on — and family identities certainly don’t, so the idea that the Barahals have a reputation that stretches back two millennia stretches credulity.

And I also think a lot of the problem is the first-person narration. Cold Magic does a great job of exemplifying what I find so frustrating about that style — it stymies the author’s ability to explain things. Throughout the book, you get the sense that there’s a lot Cat knows which the reader doesn’t and which she doesn’t bother to explain, a lot of “given circumstances” that you just can’t allow to lie there as assumptions in an alternate history. But at the same time, the first-person narration means that the reader also can’t know anything that Cat doesn’t — and as the plot progresses through the never-unpacked mysteries, that starts to encompass a lot of salient details. I don’t mind the tangents that Cat goes down — The rules of magic are never explained, which in a fantasy novel I just find extraordinarily maddening. It’s several hundred pages in before anything gets explained about the cold mages, and even then, we don’t get a lot. And for all that we get a lot of history about things that happened two thousand years ago, we get a lot less on the recent history that has shaped the culture in which Cat lives — or even the current circumstances.

But what’s so weird is that, while leaving all of that unexplained, Elliott devotes a lot of time to repeating things that the reader already does know, but without giving them any new depth or revelations. She also spends a lot of time talking about what the food is like at inns. I love tangents, I really do. I’m the child who read the encyclopedia for fun, so I will never fault an author for wandering down world-building avenues, even if it is a bit at the expense of the plot. I don’t mind it. But the digressions in this book are just strange. Quite often, they don’t add anything to the plot and they don’t clarify the world-building. They’re either just dull (I hate reading about food) or they only add more confusion (ghost plagues in Africa! a secret codebook! other things!).

I was warned that the book might feel slow, but that definitely isn’t the word I’d use to describe it. I would go with “jerky”. The book jumps between tones so often that the reader’s likely to get whiplash. The first eighty pages aren’t slow, it’s just that you think you’re reading one kind of story, and then it suddenly becomes something completely different — which would not in of itself be a bad thing if that didn’t keep happening. You never spend enough time in any one mode to feel comfortable there before you get yanked out of it and plunged into something else, with very little sinew to connect the different ideas together. This, more than anything else, is why I was questioning my ability to process written information while reading this book, and I must say I’m gratified to see from reviews that other readers had a similar experience.

Another unfortunate thing is that I quite liked several of the characters (and they account for the remainder of the 3 stars this book gets), but, either as a consequence of the chaotic writing or of the unreliable first person narration or both, we never get a clear view of them, either. Cat herself would be interesting if her head was a more coherent place in which to spend 500 pages. She’s clearly smart, thinks on her feet, and has a backbone, but is also impulsive and a little hot-tempered, all qualities I like in a heroine, and then she gets dragged headfirst into a swirling identity crisis, which makes for good internal drama. But once again, that jerky, jarring quality of the narrative makes it difficult to feel comfortable living in her point of view. Cat’s forced-husband, Andrevai, would be such an intriguing person to know better, caught between two worlds as he is, overcompensating for insecurities, experiencing an identity crisis every bit as tormenting as Cat’s — but since Cat doesn’t, the reader doesn’t get to, and the weird semi-romance that’s going on there just ends up feeling awkward and artificial. Bee is charming and a lovely subversion of expectations. And then there’s Roderic, and I won’t explain who he is because it’s a definite spoiler, but he’s just plain delightful, and I want to know him and his entire family better. Many of the side characters are interesting, too — and so many of them are female! And female characters in positions of power! That’s exciting and commendable. I just… wish we actually got to know any of them.

I think I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, mostly in a hope that there are explanations occurring somewhere, and if there are, it will drive me up the wall not to have them. I can tell that, at least in the author’s head, this is a fully-realized and complete world with a lot of nuance and underlying complexities, and I trust that it all makes sense somehow. But if and when I do pick up the next book, it will be with the fervent hope that the writing is a lot more coherent than it was in Cold Fire.

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The October Horse, by Colleen McCullough

Title: The October HorseOctoberHorse (Masters of Rome #6)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 800 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

The October Horse is, I would say, the weakest of the series thus far, and it particularly suffers after (er, spoiler alert?) Caesar’s death.

It begins well enough, very nearly where Caesar left off, following Pompey’s death in Egypt. Caesar tracks him there, finds out what happened, and decides that he really doesn’t have any patience for this Ptolemaic nonsense. He determines to set things right in Egypt, mostly to recover some debts another Ptolemy owed to Rome and to secure the grain trade, but also because he’s intrigued by Queen/Pharaoh Cleopatra — who is not, by McCullough’s depiction, the stuff of legend. No, she’s small, profoundly ugly, obsessed with her family’s bloodlines, and a completely impulsive ruler. Caesar tries to impress better form on her, but it doesn’t seem to take. He does, however, stick around long enough to sire a son on her — which Cleopatra credits with ending the Nile’s drought. She sees Caesar as, like herself, a god in human form, and thus worthy of breeding into the Ptolemaic dynasty. Though she knows he has a Roman wife and can never acknowledge her children as his legal heirs, she nonetheless wants to hold onto him so she can produce a daughter for her son Caesarion to marry.

To Cleo’s dismay, however, Caesar doesn’t stick around — not least because he has no desire to be party to producing incest, but also because he just plain needs more to do once he’s set Alexandria back in order. He mops up some of the other Pompeians (one of the best sections of the book actually involves Cato’s march across Africa), and then returns to Rome to set things in order, though he’s desperate to be off again on a campaign to Parthia. Caesar’s arc in this book is the tragedy of having no worthy opponents left. With no opposition, he can do as he pleases — and he doesn’t like it. He still does it, because he knows what’s necessary for his nation, but it brings him no satisfaction. He also spends a great deal of time contemplating who will be his heir (aware, thanks to a Celtic prophecy, that he doesn’t have too many years left). He has more options than are immediately apparent, given his numerous cousins and nephews, but ultimately the choice comes down to Marcus Antonius or Gaius Octavius. The proven commander, a grown man with extensive military experience but a shocking lack of any redeeming moral fiber, or the untried teenager, eerily insightful but asthmatic and militarily deficient? No one knows until after Caesar’s death — but Antony assumes it’s him and acts accordingly.

McCullough decides to make Antony actively complicit in the assassination plot, since he believes that he gets everything once Caesar’s dead. I will say that, for purely personal reasons, I didn’t like this. For all Mark Antony’s faults, I have a historical crush on him, and so I far prefer the versions of history that place him as Caesar’s trusted lieutenant. As for the other conspirators, I wish she’d done some of them better justice. When we last saw Decimus Brutus and Trebonius, they were some of Caesar’s most loyal adherents, with him to the end. The first time they appear in October Horse, they’re already turning against him. While this does seem to be what happens in Plutarch, you’d think McCullough might’ve fleshed it out a bit better. Instead, she just sort of leaves it at “they got jealous” and that’s apparently motivation enough for murder. Decimus does pretty well fall apart afterwards, though, realising that he killed the best man he ever knew, the man to whom he owed everything. Instead of much on them, however, we get a lot of time with Brutus and Cassius — whose characterizations I did appreciate, since she shows Brutus as weak, ineffectual, and cowardly, Cassius as snappily ambitious and hot-tempered, and Porcia as not totally in possession of her wits, especially after her father’s death. It drives home just how pathetic the “Liberator” cause was, how wasteful, how petty. (Yes, I am an unapologetic Caesarian).

McCullough makes an interesting choice with the structure of this book. October Horse divides into more and shorter parts than the rest of the series, and I think it’s to draw attention to the ticking clock, counting down to Caesar’s doom — since presumably, anyone reading this series knows that March of 44 is the fated date. McCullough makes you more aware of the passage of time here than in previous books in the series, so you feel the sand running out of the glass of Caesar’s life — and he seems to hear its whisper as well. For all the lead-up, though, the Ides of March itself passes quickly. McCullough doesn’t dwell on the act, and then she’s on to the aftermath — which is less compelling. Octavian quickly sets himself up as the new Caesar, but he’s not as likable as our dearly departed friend, nor have we spent the time and energy with him to invest us in his cause. The reader ends up seeing him just as the preferable alternative to Antony, but a little alarming — preternaturally observant, scarily intelligent, and utterly ruthless.

As such, it’s hard to see how McCullough will make Antony and Cleopatra particularly engaging. From what I understand, she didn’t want to write it in the first place — the afterword to October Horse flat-out says she’s done, but her publishers or someone convinced her to keep going on through Actium. But with Antony so blatantly unlikeable, Cleopatra an incest-obsessed mouse, and Octavian lacking charisma as an alternative protagonist, it’s easy to imagine the final installment lacking the compelling qualities of the earlier entries. Still, October Horse remains a detailed and engaging epic, and if it’s the weakest of a series like Masters of Rome, it’s still a worthy read.

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