Sunday, 2 March 2008

Roman Novels

Here are some recent and forthcoming novels set in Roman times, my favourite period:

Counting the Stars by Helen Dunmore. This is novelist and poet Dunmore's take on the scandalous affair between the poet Catullus and a senator's wife, thought to be Clodia Metelli, whom he calls Lesbia in the series of passionately anguished poems he wrote about their relationship. You can download the first chapter here.
I found Catullus a more readable poet than Virgil or Horace at school and can still remember a few lines, like odi et amo and the beginning and end of the heartfelt and pious (in the Roman sense) poem he wrote about his visit to his dead brother's grave. But I won't admit to knowing any of that rude one. After all, my Latin teacher was a vicar's wife.

Of Merchants and Heroes is the first novel by Paul Waters. Extract
here. And this from the publisher's website:
A stunning historical fiction debut in the same vein as Robert Graves and Mary Renault...A consuming story of love, loss and redemption set in the classical world of Greece and Rome...This is a remarkable, beautifully written novel that explores political and philosophical questions that are timeless - democracy and tyranny, war and self-defence, right and duty - as well as questions of love, loyalty and betrayal.
No hyperbole there, then. Nevertheless, I've just bought a copy and will report back when I've read and inwardly digested.

The Uncertain Hour by Jesse Browner. This was published in May 2007 in the U.S. but not at all in the U.K. as far as I can tell. I just noticed it in the current issue of The Historical Novels Review. It doesn't seem to have been published in the UK. It's about T. Petronius Niger, the soldier, senator and courtier who became Nero's Arbiter of Elegance, eventually being ordered to fall on his sword for his trouble. In the novel he gives himself a rather elegant send-off (and a slow death) during a sumptuous banquet. Intriguing. Read an extract here. Apparently, there's lots of detail about the delectable grub on offer at the banquet, and it (hurrah!) passes the dormouse test (see Rules for Writing Historical Fiction set in Classical Times (Rule III)!

And after these literary heavyweights, how about some straightforward adventure:

Centurion by Simon Scarrow is the latest in the popular series about a pair of likely lads in the Roman Army in the first century AD. This episode finds our heroes, Macro and Cato, in the Middle East, where Rome is vying with Parthia for control of Palmyra which, if I remember, was on a vital trade route. The previous novels in the series have all been reissued in paperback with super new covers to match this one. Oh, and acording to the website, a Sharpe-style TV series of some of the books is in the offing. That should be good, if the script and production values are better than for some recent TV drama-docs, like the limp Spartacus that I dozed through the other night on BBC 2.

Sword of Revenge by Jack Ludlow, out now, is the second in a trilogy set in the late Republic by an author better known as David Donachie of the historical seafaring adventures. The first novel was called Pillars of Rome and both are set in the years before Julius Caesar, during the tumultuous years of The Social Wars. Acording to the publisher's website, Pillars of Rome is a Kane and Abel-type story of two boys born on the same day, one rich, one poor. Sword of Revenge takes up with the next generation.

Funny, the sword on the front cover looks medieval to me. But what do I know?

However, if it's detectives you want, Rome can do those too:

Ruso and the Demented Doctor by R S Downie (US: Terra Incognita by Ruth Downie). I'm looking forward to getting my mitts on this, the second of a series. I loved the first, Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, which introduced Ruso, a world-weary army surgeon based in the legionary fortress of Deva (Chester) who turns reluctant detective when he treats a native girl left for dead. He's a bit of a Philippus Marlo, with a nice line in dry humour. There's an article by the author on her publisher's website and her blog/website is here.

And, oh joy, there's to be another Gordianus the Finder a
dventure in May: The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor. Good to see that the old chap is still going strong. He's getting on a bit now so maybe he needs longer rests between adventures. Anyway, this outing involves quite a lot for a geriatric gumsandal to contend with: Vercingetorix the Gaul, who's about to be executed, Cleopatra arriving in Rome, Caesar at odds with Marc Antony, and of course Caesar's wife and that soothsayer. Oh, and pompous old Cicero making a fool of himself with his teenage bride.

Last but not least, our old friend Marcus Corvinus has been up to his tricks again in his twelfth outing, Illegally Dead by David Wishart which came out in February. Corvinus is a Roman aristocrat whose sleuthing adventures take place in first-century Rome and Italy. He's another Chandleresque detective who sees the seamy side of things and the hallmark of the books are their racy humour and the highly colloquial dialogue which some historical fiction purists really don't approve of. Do they really think that all Romans spoke classical Latin all the time? But don't let them spoil the fun- these novels are great fun and you can learn a lot about ancient Rome without even realising it.

Finally, because I'm not quite sure where to put these, a couple of goodies by new (to me) authors:

The Forgotten Legion by Ben Kane (to be published in May).
This is the first in a trilogy set in the first century BC, following
the adventures of four characters (a brother and sister sold into slavery as gladiator and prostitute respectively), an Etruscan soothsayer and a Gaul whose family was killed by Romans. They all get involved in one way or another with Crassus and his Parthian war. Gosh, Etruscan soothsayers seem to be all the rage: Calpurnia's soothsayer in the new Gordianus is also of that ilk. I wonder what the Etruscan is for "Woe, woe and thrice woe"?

Gladiatrix by Russell Whitfield, out in March. Lysandra is a Spartan warrior priestess who becomes a female gladiator in the time of the Emperor Domitian. There's more about this novel here and you can read an extract here. I believe the author will be appearing at the Historical Novel Society's 2008 conference in York on 12 April. Gladiatrix is published by Myrmidon, a rather interesting new independent publisher based in Newcastle upon Tyne which features quite a few historical novels on its publications list, which is very fitting considering its name and Greek-helmet logo.

I'm planning to read and report on as many of these as I can, but if you read any of them in the meantime, please tell me what you think of them. I'd be interested to know!

By the way, I just found an article on the subject of fiction set in ancient times by Allan Massie (no mean historical novelist of that era himself) in Prospect magazine. It's a bit old (November 2006), but still relevant and interesting, I think.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Oh, I'm totally using that naughty Catullus poem in one of my NiPs.

Carla said...

I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy of Gladiatrix. It's excellent, and I'll be posting my review on publication day.

I didn't even bother to try the drama-documentary on Spartacus - sounds like I didn't miss much! I hate TV drama-documentaries - they always seem to be 'neither fish nor fowl'. You can't trust their accuracy because of the 'drama' aspect, but they usually aren't very gripping either. I do hope the trend for them reverses and we go back to documentaries that tell you something and dramas that are dramatic.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Gabriele - Tsk, tsk. Oh, go on, then. It'll be fun!

Carla - look forward to reading your review of Gladiatrix. I do so agree with you about these dismal drama-docs. I reckon it's because the TV "Tristrams" think we can't handle serious factual programmes with talking head experts so they give the sort of pap that they think won't overtax our collective brain cell. Horizon seems to have gone down that route too.

Carla said...

Horizon has been dismal of late, hasn't it? There may just be some slight glimmerings of hope - last week's programme on planets around distant stars was quite interesting, providing you could ignore the bizarre fisheye lens shots (presumably there to prove the production team had all been to film school. I can see no other point). Okay, so In Our Time could have covered the same ground in about five minutes, but at least there was something in the programme.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Lol, I knew what the rude poem was before I clicked the link. I had translated it in uni the other week. I had to consult the dictionary several times before I was convinced, yes, I'd translated it right. :)

Why oh why does my purse have to be so empty when there are so many good books coming out?