Monday, July 5, 2010

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn — 480 pgs

Book CoverAs Thea, a slave from ancient Rome, tirelessly works to please her domineering mistress, she finds no pleasure in the monotony of her days. But one day she unexpectedly crosses paths with one of the most famous gladiators of the time, a brutal man named Arius, known to the public as The Barbarian. Thea and Arius quickly become entangled with one another but are brutally separated by Thea's manipulative and cunning mistress, Lepida Pollia, who desires Arius for herself. Thea is at once sent to live at the mercy of men but soon finds herself the slave of a generous man who cultivates a house full of talent. Soon Thea is reinvented as Athena, a singer and lute player that captivates even the most lofty patricians. As Thea rises to stardom, she keeps many secrets about her past and longs to one day be reunited with her famous lover. But fate is not kind to Thea, and when she captures the interest of the the great Emperor Domitian, she finds herself in a new world of pain and uncertainty. Domitan, a savage man, quickly brands Thea as his own and begins to calculate frightening abuses upon her, but underneath it all, Thea remains resolute and strong, never expecting the day when Arius reappears in her life. But Arius and Thea are not free to find their happiness in each other and must face down not only an Emperor but some of the most shrewd and calculating enemies ever to walk the streets of Rome. In this thrilling tale of historical fiction, the underbelly of Rome is most deliciously explored and exposed through the eyes of the colorful cast of characters who will all share a part in the unfolding drama of two rather remarkable slaves.

When I first picked up this book, I was somewhat discouraged. You see, I was sure that I had read this story before. I mean, it wasn't so long ago that I reviewed both Cleopatra's Daughter and The Forgotten Legion. I figured that this book would be just another mix between a gladiator and a slave story and that I had probably been through all of this before. What I got was an entirely new story, filled with breathtaking action, intriguing drama and a pretty darn good love story. I guess by now I should know not to walk into any book with preconceived notions, because more often than not, I am completely wrong.

Mistress of Rome is a story told through several vantage points. Through the eyes of Thea the slave, Lepida the Mistress and quite a few others, the tale of Thea and Arius begins to take shape, pulling several other players into the drama. As chapters move successively forward, the vantage point shifts and each character continues on with the story, reflecting on how the unfolding drama impacts them personally. I liked this technique and thought it was extremely well done here. Each of the characters had a distinct voice and focus, and through the flavor of those voices, the story came alive into an all encompassing tale that lived and breathed. I think I enjoyed reading the sections from Lepida Pollita the best. Though she was the character that I most wished would be crushed by a war horse, I found myself engrossed in her opinions and behaviors. I guess she was the character I loved to hate and I loved getting into her head and trying to figure out what she was going to do next.

Though the story was filled with twists and turns, I didn't get the feeling that the plot line was convoluted or unbelievable in any way. The story was told in a matter-of-fact way with little room for flight and fancy. Though some of the sections relied on coincidence, I didn't feel that the plot was orchestrated by it, or that there was not enough left to chance. Though this story was mostly centered around Thea and Arius, there were several other strong plot lines winding their way through as well, and each got a fair share of attention. I think it's kind of tricky to tell so many stories from so many perspectives at once, but I felt that Quinn pulled excelled with the drama and action that surrounded the lovers' story. She has a great way of making all of it relevant and interesting, and every time the story broke away from the couple I waited with interest to see where she was going next.

I do think a lot of this book was sensationalistic; that's one of the things I liked about it. Although most of the time I am looking for books with a very literary feel to them, sometimes it's nice to be able to enjoy gobbling down something that you consider literary junk food as well. This was the kind of book that kept me turning the pages for that very reason. Things were messy, violent and dramatic, and I must say that I had a heck of a time putting this book down due to the great development of the plot. It was a fun read that had me shaking my head at the intrigues and betrayals on every page, and the more I let myself get carried away with it, the more I became enveloped in the story. It was the kind of book that you keep by your side at all times, just to have it close to you should you get a few minutes to read.

I also think the crafting of the story was done very well. Things that didn't seem very important in the beginning went from window dressing to integral plot point towards the end, and the character creation was out of this world. I liked that the bad guys were horrible and the good guys were blameless. Such stark black and white doesn't always work so well for me, but in this book it was very fitting and it made the book more enjoyable. There was a lot of good storytelling here, a lot to keep its audience at the edge of its seat, and a lot to keep them coming back. One of the things I most liked was the way the characters' stories all folded in on each other and created a sort of framework for the story to hang upon. It was interesting to watch both how the story was being constructed and the story itself, and I spent a lot of time being impressed with both aspects.

This is not the type of book that's going to win any literary awards but I urge you not to hold that against it. It's a really riveting read for a lot of reasons, and I found it to be a lot of fun to while away an afternoon with. There's enough drama and action to satisfy picky readers and the characters within are interesting creations that haven't been seen before. I think this book would make an amazing beach read but I wouldn't limit it to that. If you are looking for the reading equivalent to some good junk food, I would definitely tell you to look here. It was a lot of fun to make my way through this book and I think that it would appeal to many others as well. A really fun read. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love the comment "Though she was the character that I most wished would be crushed by a war horse..." I can think of many characters like that (including just about all of them in Wuthering Heights!!!)

I agree with you that sometimes it's great just to have literary junk food. In fact, the literary junk food can get as addicting as real junk food! :--)

Jenny said...

I've been wanting to read some books set in ancient Greece and ancient Rome - this looks like a fun place to start! :)

bermudaonion said...

Literary junk food is perfect for the summer, in my opinion! Great review!

Cath said...

Just the other day, I (like Jenny) was wondering when people would start exploring Greece and Rome in the historical fiction context. I'm so glad that you reviewed this book to show me that they already have! My brain is currently turning to goop in my head (sinus infection! Urgh!) and this sounds like the perfect diversion to help me forget my suffering. ;)

Great review

Lenore Appelhans said...

Sounds great! I love twisty books!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I was just mentioning on another blog that I don't seem to read many historical fiction novels, but yet here is another that seems to appeal to me (and that cover is great too). Thanks for the great review, and I'm starting a historical wish list :)

Hope you enjoyed the extended weekend.

Meytal Radzinski said...

Literary junk food - best defined as book-shaped whipped cream sprayed out of the can straight into the mouth.

Now I'm craving some literary junk food...

Lisa said...

If it's a great story it doesn't have to be a literary masterpiece. It just has to keep me interested. Hey, I read not one but two Dan Brown books because they kept me guessing--even if the writing itself was not great.

Darlene said...

Great review Heather! I loved this book as well. It's pure escapism and it's a great summer read I think.

Jules said...

I also loved the comment "Though se was the character that I most wished would be crushed by a war horse" I wanted the exact thing, although being impaled by a wall of spikes would have done nicely for me to. I found her POV to be the exact opposite of hers, I was waiting for each of her sections to be over, and Mr. Horse to come in. Lol, I did like how here story, wrapped up. That little of story with.... well you know, was kind of sweet, so I'm glad that thing happened. (I'm trying my best not to spoil anyone who hasn't read the book, but I just sound like I'm rambling).

And I liked what you said "the reading equivalent to junk food" I never thought of that before, but I know I have many books that fit that description perfectly. I enjoyed the review. Nice to see some similarities in what I saw in the book.

Melissa said...

At this point, with my non-existant attention span, I need literary junk food! This sounds perfect.

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