Review: Rome Burning, by Sophia McDougall

Title: Rome Burning
Author: Sophia McDougall
Series/Stand alone: Volume Two of the Romanitas Trilogy
Genre: Alternate History/Fantasy
First Published: 2007
Edition Reviewed: Orion Books/Gollancz (2008)
Hb/Pb/ebook: Paperback
Price: Available from Amazon Market Place from £0.01 (+P&P) at time of posting.

Sophia McDougall is my find of the year. I can’t say that I have gotten as much out of any other books, with the possible exception of China Miéville’s Kraken, which is but one book, whilst Romanitas is a trilogy. After finishing the first I could barely wait the length of time it took to order the second. It was only by strength of will that I forced myself to hold out for the paperback, which I dearly desired for both ergonomic and practical reasons – these are fantasy books where there is real value in having a map you can actually read, and the Kindle version was sadly lacking on this front.

I’m glad I held out. This is a rich and complex book that spans the politics of a world both like and unlike our own. Being able to flip to the front to check the place names and countries in this alternate history was a real advantage. Which is not to say that the book could not be read and enjoyed without reference to the map – to say otherwise would be a disservice, and I certainly enjoyed the first book in electronic format despite this minor issue – it’s more that I feel it speaks interestingly to the role that the map-at-the-front plays in fantasy books. I have friends who love them and friends who rarely look at them. I sit somewhere in between. I don’t think all fantasy books need one. I shouldn’t be surprised if there is an occasional truth to the thought that fantasy authors and publishers tend to include them more because Tolkein ‘started with a map’ than anything else. Certainly, one of my very favourite fantasy (and other genres) serieses, The Dark Tower, positively benefits from the lack of one. Mid World is a place that has grown with the telling of its story – both within the text and without. In the very first volume Roland notes that the distances on maps are no longer accurate – the world has moved on. By contrast, my other favourite fantasy series, Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy (and related novels) is seated in a political world where geographical location matters, grounding alliances and peoples – my understanding of the Six Dutchies and its neighbours would have been poorer without the map.

Books are interesting and complex physical objects. We live in a time of evolution for story-telling. If we think of ebooks as freeing the pure story from it’s awkward, limited, physical trapping, we are missing part of both what people value in books and the opportunity for creativity and development. Publishers who think of the shift to ebooks as a simple transcribing of text from one medium to another have missed that wonderous variety that technological evolution has introduced to our lives. There are opportunities, here, and the best creativity has often drawn on the past for inspiration. I’m not saying that the ebook should try to ape its physical cousin, but it is a mistake to miss what people have loved about that medium for centuries and not take this moment to pause on the threshold and ask what multiplicities of function and art the ebook can offer.

My books are art objects. The best of them have drawn me in by their covers. I have bought multiple editions of the same book because of the cover art. It decorates my rooms – says something about me, as well as the book. I know some people who have rebought a book so that they can have a matching collection. I have not done this, but I have bought ‘lending out’ copies of the same edition when the original, cherished object became to fragile, and I felt that a friend would miss out on some of the full experience I had enjoyed if they read a different edition. I haven’t done this very often, but I have done it, and I’ve talked to many people who have done the same, or similar. I have yet to see an ebook cover that wasn’t actively ugly, usually because the image, if the publisher bothered to include it, is a low resolution black and white copy of artwork intended for a different, coloured medium. The same attitude has been given to the map-at-the-front, and it suffers similarly. The text is a part of the image, and thus unscalable and mostly illegible.

I envisage that ebooks will adapt and change in part with the technology. E-ink will become more widely available in colour, combinable with touch-screens and generally more flexibility. But I also note that cost doesn’t seem to be coming down much for these items. People who see libraries going digital are forgetting about those that cannot afford ereaders, or even computers. There is scope for more creativity at the limited end of the spectrum, as well – those who wait for IT creatives to tell them what they can now do with ebooks will soon find that their more imaginative competitors have left them behind.

But I digress. On to the review!


Rome Burning picks up a few years down the line from the events of Romanitas. Marcus is heir to Rome, he and Una are still together, although worried about how his relations regard their relationship, and whether they will ever be allowed to marry. It’s summer and swelteringly hot. In the baking heat fires are common – worryingly so, perhaps even more so than the heat justifies.

Drusus, Marcus’s cousin and rival for the throne, has been avoiding Rome since the events of the previous book. Unknown to everyone but us [Spoilers for book one ahoy! Although if you haven’t read that one yet, what are you doing reading this review? Get started on Romanitas, STAT!] Drusus is the real mastermind behind the deaths of Marcus’s parents, Varius’s wife, Gamella, the attempt on Marcus’s own life, and the attempted cover-up. Una discovered the guilt of the emperor’s mistress, Tulliola, via telepathy, but although she poisoned the sweets that were meant for Marcus and killed Gamella, the plan was Drusus’s. To prevent her revealing this secret, Drusus kills her, and portrays it as suicide.

Relations between Nionia (aka Japan) and Rome are tense. A conflict breaks out on the Terra Novan border and it is unclear who started it. During attempts to resolve the dispute, the emperor suffers a stroke. Marcus is sworn in as regent, and his and Una’s lives change. As regent, he cannot fulfill his promise to free all slaves, but he does free all the palace slaves, offering them positions as servants. Convinced that peace with Nionia can be achieved, he arranges talks with the Nionians on the neutral ground of Sina (China). Una, who has never trusted Drusus, uses her telepathy to discover his guilt. He tries to kill her to prevent the truth coming out, but she escapes and he is thrown in jail.

But all is not well. General Salvius, who commands Rome’s forces, mistrusts Marcus and Una. He does not believe peace with Nionia can be achieved and he loses respect for Marcus in his failure to respond with force. Drusus convinces Salvius that Una and her brother Sulien are part of a Nionian plot to mislead Marcus, and Salvius frees Drusus from jail, persuading Emperor Faustus, who is still weak and confused from his stroke, that Una and her brother are traitors, along with Varius, whom Marcus has persuaded to act as his advisor.

Meanwhile, some other faction has been acting covertly from within Rome itself. Tensions with Nionia increased after the events in Terra Nova, and worsen when a weapons factory explodes near Rome. Varius and Sulien had been visiting it at the time. Sulien has been working with Varius in a clinic set up to help sick and injured slaves, using his healing skill. The factory had had a very poor safety record, and Varius had been trying to persuade the manager that it was in his own interest to treat his slaves better. Varius and Sulien had been caught in the explosion and barely survive with their lives. Everyone suspects Nionia, but something doesn’t add up. Then again, if Nionia isn’t to blame, who else could it be? Drusus? If so, why? Was he trying to kill Sulien? If so, who was it who tried to kidnap Sulien shortly before the explosion?

Was it awesome?

Very much so. The plots and twists are intricate and gripping, and the characters build on what was established in the first volume to develop real depth. Sulien forms a particularly interesting case. His character in Romanitas was less fully developed than Una’s. He seemed oddly resilient to the events that surround him. He is described as having a conveniently malleable memory. When bad things happen to him, he just forgets them – he moves on, he lives in the present. I wouldn’t say it was precisely implausible, but it was at least peculiar. I sometimes wondered if his unusual character might be linked to his healing ability – his mind subconsciously healing itself by removing the troubling elements.

In Rome Burning, Sulien’s world view is repeatedly challenged. Even his even-tempered nature cannot withstand witnessing the murder of thousands of slaves at the factory. One senses that something has shifted in him forever – he is no longer sure that he wants to take everything in good grace. It is a peculiar and interesting character study in loss of innocence. Sulien had endured being wrongly accused of rape, sentencing to crucifixion, being on the run with Una and Marcus – all the events of the previous book – with barely a chink in his good humour. The only exception was his realisation that he himself would be prepared to kill to save his sister; a realisation that he has tried not to think about since. Sulien is not entirely broken by his experiences in Rome Burning, but something has changed.

He makes for an interesting comparison to Varius, who was broken by his experiences in the first book. He was tortured and changed by having given in to torture – he has betrayed Marcus, and although Marcus has forgiven him, he cannot forgive himself, and he has not stopped grieving for his wife. I was particularly moved by the description of his failed attempt at a new romance. He develops a relationship with a neighbour, but cannot understand what she sees in him. His self-respect is so low that he concludes she can only be interested in some romantic idea of him as a broken man. It’s a nice episode of knowing reflection. I had already begun to work on my Varius-crush, and there is something uncomfortable in being confronted with the reality of a romantic ideal. I love a tortured hero, but I must confess that I’m attracted to more stable men in real life. No one wants to be loved for the sake of an idealised version of themselves. That’s not love, and it’s only ‘romantic’ in its crudest sense. We often see women idealised out of true character-hood in books and films. It’s something I’ve found frustrating in my own life. I cannot stand to be pedestalised for the sake of romance, but there is an entrenched cultural ideal that this is how love should work. It’s good both to see the tables turned on a male character in this way, and also to have one’s own habits challenged. Women can objectify men just as men objectify women; women should recognise this. Equally, it’s good to have a character men can identify with, and thus experience frustration on beahlf of, in the face of such treatment (even if it remains unknown whether his perception of the relationship is a fair assessment).

Una and Marcus also grow as characters, confronted with the realities of a world where Marcus is expected to assume the responsibilities of power and restrictions that go with it. Una, the forceful character from the previous novel, finds herself oddly displaced in the world of power, to which she is only permitted as Marcus’s mistress. She has talents that are applicable in the political world – as she demonstrates when she accompanies him to Sina – but she is only there because of her relationship to a man. This limits her and makes her uncomfortable. Marcus, on the other hand, is growing into his power. He looks like he just might make a good ruler. He is wise and sensitive, and still just idealistic enough… yet he is also confronted by a ruthlessness within himself that, although it is necessary – good even – in a ruler, changes him in ways that he himself does not entirely like. Another kind of loss of innocence. Another example of someone learning something about themselves by being confronted by what they will do.

There is a question here about the nature of personal identity and self-knowledge – about how we know about ourselves, and what we can know. I don’t think it is as simple as saying that we only really know ourselves by witnessing what we do, however. Rather, we are both formed by our experiences and by what we decide to do. Or perhaps I am projecting my own philosophy onto these characters. The book doesn’t really offer any answers, on this front, but it prompts interesting questions.

I cannot complete a review of this book without touching the interesting examples of women in power it explores. Three of the most powerful and important movers in this political drama are women, and only one of them is in a position of power herself. Enigmatic and captivating, the Empress of Sina is heard of before she is seen, as Una wonders to herself how she did it – how this woman took such power to herself having been merely the emperor’s mistress. It’s an interesting mirror on Una herself. The cultural values are different, but the similarities striking. Una is what we would call Marcus’s girlfriend, but because he is in a position of power, and she had previously been a slave, Roman law says she can never be his wife. Of course, Marcus wants to change that law, when he is emperor, but it isn’t clear that his dreams will truly be within his power to realise. Moreover, it is heavily implied that Una was once a prostitute, and there is a theme of the connection between women and sex and power that hangs tantalisingly in the air. McDougall wisely does not draw any straight lines. Both the Empress and Una are in positions of power because of their relations to powerful men, but Una’s past experience of prostitution represents an underminding of her power and strength. It is an element of her past she cannot even think about, although, unlike Sulien, she does not seem to have been successful in simply wiping the events from her memory. They linger on. If sex is an avenue to power, it is a fragile one, as it is clearly also an avenue to violation and destruction.

To me, what this implies, is more a challenge to the commonly drawn line between women and sex and power. Neither Una nor the Empress are ever really seen to use sexuality to get what they want. Una’s flowering as a political entity in Sina is utterly independent of Marcus. In fact, she could not be more forcefully separate from him when she takes control of events and forges a sort of women’s alliance with Noriko, the Nionian princess, and the Empress Jun Shen. She is held by the Nionians as a hostage, and he is trapped on a train in the middle of nowhere. Similarly, however she originally came to the emperor’s attention, Jun Shen is unquestionably the power in Sina in her own right. We never even see the emporer.

Noriko stands as an interesting counterpoint, both similar and different to the other two women. Unlike them, she was born into her position, and yet she seems to have taken very little power to herself before this point. Her presence in Sina is as a mere playing piece – the Nionians hope they can cement peace with a marriage. Noriko is initially shocked when she realises Una’s history, and that she is not noble born at all, and had once been a slave… until she recollects that Jun Shen was not nobley born either, and, in fact, the Empress and the ex-slave have more in common with each other than they do with the princess. Yet, Noriko is not entirely inert before being exposed to these other strong ladies. Her first meeting with the empress is when she is caught spying on Marcus, trying to find out who this man is that she may be asked to marry. Even as the empress chastises her, there is a moment of identification when she offers backhanded advice to Noriko: “‘Your disguise is pitiful, it does nothing but tell the world you have something to hide… Better to find a way of doing your work in your own person. That… is what I would have done.'” Even though the empress is contemptuous of the manner in which Noriko acts, she confesses that she would have acted similarly to obtain more information were she in Noriko’s position, and there is a sort of friendliness in her correction – it indicates that she wants Noriko to take charge of her own life, to use her position as an asset, rather than a constraint.

Again we see a familiar trope of the relationship between women and power: that power is something that never truly belongs to women, that it merely passes transitively through us as conduits for males who wish to cement relations. There is a large and fascinating literature on ‘The Traffic in Women’ – the value of marriage in gift-culture, and the wide-ranging consequences of such actions and attitudes. Noriko is partaking in the traditional exchange in a way that Jun Shen and Una have not. Jun Shen is a successful transgressor of that boundary – she has taken power out of the system of male exchange. Rather than one man confirming an alliance with another by offering him one of his women, Jun Shen assumed all of the most powerful man in Sina’s power for herself. An incredible feat. Una started from a position of no power at all – literally the property of men, as well as figuratively. It was her forceful personality in seizing control of Marcus’s life in order to protect him that won her his heart. She transitioned from one man’s possession to take from others first one man (her brother) and then another, who happened to not only be a free man himself, but heir to the throne. But she did so by running away from the world of rules. Marcus took power back for himself in returning to Rome, and in this novel they are learning that power is a network of agreements between people, and the established rules are the main way that you access that power. Until Una forms a tentative network of her own with Noriko and Jun Shen she has no access to the power that Marcus has. She is left adrift in a world where the cables of power only allow female connections as a way of joining men to each other.

You only break into such a system by breaking the system apart and putting it back together in a new form. Which, of course, is exactly what Marcus wants to do, but hanging over this novel is the question of what Una, Sulien, Varius – any of them – can do if anything happens to Marcus. In a sense, he has to become entirely isolated in order for others to start taking power on their own. And that’s exactly what happens.

In this sense, the removal from Rome to Sina is interesting in another way. There is no single network of power, here. There are three large, powerful, ancient, entrenched cultural nexuses coming together. Everything that happens in Sina must be performed by careful, even tortured, forging of new behaviours, rituals, alliances. This is particularly obvious in the ceremonial ritual Varius is forced to devise to allow all three monarchs (or their representatives) to meet with no party placed above any other. A difficult task where each monarchy claims to be descended from a god. The result is painfully awkward for all involved, but it is achieved. The old traditions are bent to new ends, and this is symbolic of the incredible possibilities that open up when cultures meet and engage in exchange. It is in part being away from the strictures of court life that allows Noriko to take a more active part than she ever has before. But this simply highlights that the mechanics of power are not simply about gender – they are about race and culture and religion, and a multiplicity of other things. It is difficult to adapt to other ways of thinking and behaving, but the more we are open to other people and cultures, the more possibilities open up before us.

This is a rich and complex book with a relentless pace that manages not to sacrifice character for tension. It’s a book to eat up your life and make you neglect more important things. The only note that struck a little false, for me, was the ending. Without wanting to give away the details, I can’t comment on this without noting that it is a cliffhanger, and one that felt slightly forced, to me. I appreciate the temptation, in trilogies, to use the second book to do something daring and leave the reader wanting more. The Empire Strikes Back is a famous example from film, and famously popular. But even though Han Solo is trapped in carbonite and many questions remain unanswered, there is still a kind of resolution, and I think you need that, unless you’re saying something beyond ‘buy the next book, now’. Thinking of cliffhangers in books, I’m actually coming up with nothing, so take another example from film: The Italian Job – this works because even though it’s frustrating, the anti-narrative ending fits with the quirky, anti-establishment tone of the movie. The film is giving us a slip in the same way that the characters have led the police a merry chase. I don’t really find anything in Rome Burning that justifies the cliffhanger. The book could have ended comfortably just short of this moment with plenty of questions left to want you to get to the next book, but without the slightly ragged feeling of just having… stopped.

Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but it simply didn’t work, for me. As complaints go, this should not be considered as too significant, however. I was going to buy the next book anyway – I hadn’t wanted the story to stop – and I would still recommend it to others. You can tell I found a lot to sink my teeth into just from the length of this review, and I haven’t even touched on some of the major plot points, in an effort to avoid spoilers.

Go, read it. It is worth your time.

9 thoughts on “Review: Rome Burning, by Sophia McDougall

  1. Yay! Other people are reviewing the Romanitas trilogy! I don’t want to say too much because almost everything I say about the third book would be spoilerish, and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it.

    One thing that you talk about – and which was the biggest selling-point for this series for me – is the books’ exploration of the interaction of different kinds of privilege and discrimination. McDougall manages to convey the interior lives, the ways these different kinds of privilege and discrimination manifest in different characters, with a degree of respect for the characters’ integrity that I haven’t seen much elsewhere. She treats all their stories with seriousness and respect.

    (Sorry to randomly leap in here with comments; I’ve been reading and obsessing over these books since 2007, frustrated that there are so few people online with whom to talk about them, and when Sophia linked to your review on Twitter, I couldn’t resist.)

    • Heh, I have already read the last book, so no spoilers fo me, it’s cool to avoid spoiling my readers. 😀

      Cmpletely agree that her exploration of privilege is excellent. It was her blogging on gender that first led me to the books, so I was really glad to see her writing reflected that, too.

      No probs at all with you jumping in!

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