The second Romanitas book, “Rome Burning”, ended on a huge cliffhanger so I was keen to see how it was resolved at the beginning of the concluding book in the trilogy. The resolution of the cliffhanger didn’t turn out exactly as I expected it to and the first chapter dealing with this is one of the best and most powerful in the trilogy. The rest of the book follows the aftermath of those events and it does cover a lot of different plotlines ranging in scope from two characters trying desperately to hide from the authorities while travelling across a continent (a plotline McDougall likes so much that she seems to use it at least twice in every novel) to a World War between the two empires of Rome and Nionia (Japan) while ever-present in the background is Una, Varius and Sulien’s determination to abolish slavery in the Roman Empire.
There are a lot of potentially interesting plotlines in the book, but some of them are more successful. The series has tended to be at its best when it focuses tightly on a small number of characters and this is true again here with the scenes of characters in captivity or on the run among the most effective in the book, particularly in the mid-novel scenes where there are attempts to save a character from being executed in the Coliseum. The Coliseum scene and the trial preceding it is perhaps the highlight of the book. The book isn’t quite as assured when it comes to the storylines involving the war. It struggles to really convey what is happening in the war as a whole and what we see of the overall strategy is sometimes unconvincing while the ordinary legionaries conscripts that play an important role in the second half of the book seem a bit shallow compared to some of the other characters. The war storyline is at its best when showing the claustrophobia of living in a city under aerial bombardment, probably because it allows McDougall to focus on the pressure it puts on the characters. The world-building continues to be a bit vague, although there are some nice touches such as the Pharos Lighthouse and Great Library still standing in Alexandria and various characters’ confusion at encountering an obscure religion in Ethiopia which uses a cross as its symbol.
The ending of the series is satisfying, although some elements of it do seem a bit rushed and slightly too easy. The bittersweet epilogue is also good at showing that even in victory the impact of the war doesn’t go away.
The characterisation has generally been the strongest part of the series and I’d say that largely continues here despite some occasional issues – Sulien can be a frustrating character to read about and even he seems puzzled by some of the things he does while Drusus continues to feel a bit of a cliché of a self-centred despot. The novel does suffer a bit from the lack of Dama, who was probably the most intriguing character in the first two novels but Una and Varius continue to be interesting characters.
Overall, this is an entertaining conclusion to a series that has always been a bit uneven but has enough good points to be worth reading.
Rating : 7.5 / 10
In a world where the Roman Empire never fell but survived into the modern day a young member of the Imperial family faces having to take on a greater responsibility after The Emperor, his Uncle, falls ill in the middle of a diplomatic crisis with the Far Eastern Nionian Empire. Some of his enemies who forced him to go on the run three years previously are still a threat and his desire to one day abolish the Empire’s use of slavery still faces opposition.
I enjoyed Romanitas, the first book in this series, although I thought it wasn’t as good as it potentially could have been. “Rome Burning” shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of the first book in the series, although I think overall it is an improvement on the first book.
What I liked most about the first book was the characterisation and this continues to be a strength of the sequel. I thought Una and Dama were the most intriguing characters in the first book and the second book does provide some good scenes for them both, Una in particular has to make some tough decisions due to the conflict between her strongly-held principles and the Roman society she finds herself living at the heart of. The other two main characters in the first book weren’t quite as compelling, Una’s brother Sulien is likeable but at times is frustratingly passive although Marcus does get more interesting character development here and gains a greater maturity even as he also gains some flaws to go along with that. There are some interesting supporting characters, including the Japanese princess Noriko and the Chinese Dowager Empress.
I had mixed feelings about the worldbuilding in the first book. The idea of a Roman Empire which never fell but has expanded and survived up to the present day is an intriguing alternate history idea, but I felt the world didn’t have much depth to it. The same is true here, although we get to see a bit more of the world it still feels a bit lacking in detail.
The plot is a bit unusual in the sense that it’s not until the last hundred or so pages that there is a revelation that what has really been happening is more complex than it initially appeared. There are a few genuine surprises and at least three moments where the plot abruptly changes direction from where it seemed to be going. MacDougall is good at writing some very tense scenes, even if the ‘characters have to go on the run’ plotline might be a bit overused. Due to the main plot not being revealed until a long way through the book the first section of the book does feel a bit slow paced but the end of the book is much stronger and the overall storyline is more compelling than the story in the first book. I do have one criticism of the ending, while the first book could have worked as a standalone it was a bit annoying for the second book to end on a huge cliffhanger.
Rating : 8 / 10
In a world where the Roman Empire never fell it has grown over the millennia to dominate most of the world but there is a dark shadow at the heart of the Empire in the form of its continued reliance on the use of slaves to build the Empire. Two escaped slaves and an idealistic grandson of the Emperor with some controversial opinions about slaves are all forced together as they are hunted across Europe.
The “This is the Roman Empire, Now” tagline was what initially grabbed my attention about the book; it’s an intriguing premise even if this isn’t the first book to feature an alternate history in which the Roman Empire never fell. I think it failed to entirely live up to its full potential, but it is still an entertaining read.
Given that the book’s unique selling point was meant to be that it was sent in a 21st Century Roman Empire the world-building feels slightly lacking at times. Although there is a fair amount of detail and the alternative history seems fairly plausible the Roman elements aren’t particularly distinctive and a lot of the world-building does seem to mostly consist of renaming things. If the book had instead been a secondary world fantasy it wouldn’t necessarily have been much different.
While the world-building is slightly lacklustre I think it is the characterisation that is perhaps the most appealing part of the book. The main characters are likeable and the interactions between them generally ring true. The book does a good job of exploring their emotions and why they act the way they do – particularly Una and Dama who are the strongest characters. Occasionally they can make some frustratingly stupid decisions, but that it is believable given how far away they are from the world they are used to.
One of the strong points of the world-building is that the plot of the novel focuses heavily on one of the biggest differences between the Roman Empire and the modern day. The institution of slavery is central to the plot and with many of the characters being escaped slaves it does a good job of examining how even those who escape slavery are still haunted by their former status.
The plot itself is entertaining and fast-paced, it starts off with some intriguing mysteries and there is a fair amount of action throughout the book as the characters embark on journeys taking them halfway across Europe and their fugitive status does allow for a few tense scenes as they come close to being captured. There could perhaps have been a bit more time spent on the political machinations in Rome which initially seem like a significant part of the book but get largely sidelined by the lengthy descriptions of Marcus, Una and Sulien’s attempt to get to safety. Sometimes the book does seem to rest fairly heavily on coincidence, and the inclusion of some fantasy elements in the form of Una’s powers does maybe feel a bit out of place in what is otherwise a ‘realistic’ alternate history novel.
Overall, this is a good debut novel although one that doesn’t entirely fulfil its full potential and it does leave me wanting to read the sequels.
Rating : 7.5 / 10