Published 2010, Penguin Group, ISBN 978-0-425-23247-7, 466 pages.
Through various sources, I'd heard a lot of "chatter" about a historical ficion novel, Mistress of Rome, and Kate Quinn's masterful writing. With so much hype, I figured I might be let down. But, I'm not telling you whether I was or not until the end of the review!
Mistress of Rome is set during the reign of Emperor Titus Flavius Domintianus (commonly known as Domintian) from September, A.D. 81 to September, A.D. 96. As with many Roman emperors who enjoyed supreme authority, Domintian enjoyed flexing his muscles, as well as those of others. Gladiator games were a ploy used by Domintian to endear the Romans and it was a ruse embraced by the population.
Gladiators fought to the death. Kate Quinn included the Gladiator's Oath in the frontispiece of Mistress of Rome: "I undertake to be burnt by fire, to be bound in chains, to be beaten by roads, and to die by the sword.". The only other way out of the arena alive (besides winning) was if mercy was granted by the sponsor of the games to a defeated, wounded gladiator who held up his index finger to beg for clemency.
Domintian is described as a dedicated and competent administrator of Roman assets during his reign, but his successes often came at the expense of others. He was ruthless and noble and rich families were in no way exempt from accusations of treason, execution and confiscation of the unfortunate's estate. Enforcement of high taxation brought in funds to Domintian's treasury.
On the opposite side of the coin, Domintian is known for his proclivities, which included sexual torture of his victims. His self-aggrandizement of "Lord and God" meant citizens and slaves were obliged to grant him divine worship. His cruelty often knew no bounds and his epitaph might be summed up as "the evil emperor who murdered thousands of Christians". Christians were executed during the lunch break at gladiators games (I can't imagine how this would stimulate the appetite). They were judged guilty of sacrilege and treason for not acknowledging Domintian's "Lord and God" stature.
Emperor Titus Flavius Domintianus
Now, onto Mistress of Death. Thea, a Jewish slave who survived Masada (for the story behind Masada follow this link: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Archaeology/Masada1.html. The story of Masada is, in itself, fascinating.), is purchased as a gift to Lady Lepida Pollia by the lady's father. While there is a considerable cast of characters in Mistress of Death, the story is largely that of Thea.
Lady Lepida is a spoilt, selfish, cruel - I could go on ad nauseam - woman who discovers Thea and a gladiator, Arius, have fallen in love and are having an affair. This does not sit well with Lepida, who desired Arius for herself, and she sells Thea into prostitution.
Thea is pregnant with Arius's child and, when the pregnancy interferes with"business", her owner sells her to a music lover. Thea is gifted with a beautiful voice and her new owner grooms her for singing at dinners and other events attended by Roman nobility.
Unfortunately, the infamous Domintian lusts for Thea and she is forced to become his mistress. It is a brutal life with a sadistic master. In addition to enduring Domintian's callus "bed games", she must be careful to protect her son from Domintian's knowledge.
Meanwhile, Arius fights for survival every time he enters the arena and the Emperor has particular delight in placing near impossible odds against him. Arius becomes both famous and infamous for his savage nature. Yet, it is that very nature which enables him to survive until the next contest.
Lepida, forced to marry a senator (whose son she ensnares in adultery), has dreams of becoming the Emperor's mistress and, once again, is displaced by Thea. Furious, she sets in motion plots that threaten the lives of Thea, Arius and Vix, their son.
Mistress of Rome is well deserving of the accolades on the cover by Diana Galbaldon and Margaret George. I was so engrossed in this novel I read it while blow-drying my hair!
There's more than enough twists, conspiracies, betrayals, murder and mayhem to keep the reader captivated until the last page. So, as I promised at the beginning of this post, I can tell you I was not let down even minutely by the hype surrounding Mistress of Rome. Kate Quinn is deserving of the praise received for her debut historical fiction novel, Mistress of Rome.
RATING: **** 4 Stars (excellent)