The Second Annual Serene Wombles

Two years! Woo-woo! Thanks for keeping with me. It’s been another hell of a year, and although Life Events have meant that I wasn’t able to review quite as much as I would have liked, you’ve stuck with me, and that’s awesome. In fact, with 28,000 hits this year, three times as many people have shown at least a vague interest in this little blog as last year. So: thanks! 😀

Those of you who were here last October 3rd will remember that to mark the aniversary of this esteemed blog I decided to hand out some meaningless awards: The Serene Wombles!

What exactly are the Serene Wombles? Well, to quote myself last year:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble i[s] conferred by being the subject of a review [on In Search of the Happiness Max] in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the judgement will [usually] have been made on a case-by-case basis at the time of reviewing. Sometimes I use a time machine for my reviews because I want to review something that came out in 1939, sometimes because I want to review something more recent that’s out of print, or because it’s a TV show that’s been cancelled… At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Exciting stuff, eh? Let’s get started!

The Serene Womble for Best Film: Dredd 3D
Dredd 3D posterEligible Films: Dredd 3D, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games

The competition was basically between Dredd 3D, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Hunger Games. If this category were about which film I’m most likely to rewatch… well, I’d probably rewatch all of those three, but I’d want to watch The Amazing Spider-Man first and most often. But this isn’t just about which film I found most fun. Each of these was well put together and entertaining, and The Amazing Spider-Man was also visually stunning and thematically well-conceived, but Dredd 3D was just in a league of its own – beautiful and thoughtful in equal amounts. It really felt like Dredd 3D was taking sci-fi back – giving us a real vision of the future, beautiful and provocative as well as dark. Breathtaking, is the word.

I doubt this film will sweep the Real and Proper awards in the way it deserves, but here in Womblevonia I’m doing my bit to recognise originality, inspiration, and artistic genius where I see it. Congratulations, Dredd 3D! Well deserved.

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones Season 2 Promo 'The Clash of Kings has begun'Elligible TV shows: Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Misfits, The Fades, The Hollow Crown: Part I, Richard II

Tough crowd. I mean, we have The Fades, one of the most strikingly original and well-executed British fantasy TV shows in a good many years – a real tragedy that it was not renewed for a second series. Then there’s The Hollow Crown‘s adaptation of Richard II, which contains some of the very best Shakespeare I have ever seen performed, and for one of my least favourite plays, at that, including a truly spectacular performance from Ben Whishaw, as Richard II, and a simply wonderful portrayal of John of Gaunt by Patrick Stewart. And although Doctor Who has been highly questionable over the last year, I can’t deny that ‘A Town Called Mercy’ was excellent. Yet Game of Thrones is still hands down the winner, for me. It feels unfair to some of the competition to give it the Serene Womble for Best TV Show two years in a row, but given that it was even better this year than last year, I don’t feel that I can really deny it. Performances by Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, and Maisie Williams were stand outs, but everybody was bringing their A-game. The special effects were incredible – I now believe that dragons exist and that they are both very cute and very dangerous. Pretty much every element of music, direction, and writing was outstanding, and it stands out in my memory as the best thing I have seen all year.

As they say on these here Internets: All of The Awards.

The Serene Womble for Best Web Series The Guild
The Guild PromoEligible Web Series: The Guild, Dragon Age: Redmption

Well, maybe not all of the awards. This is a new category introduced to include the burgeoning genre of web series. I was tempted to roll it into the TV shows Womble, but, upon reflection, I must concede that web series are their own medium. They are usually shorter and are often much lower budget. It’s neither fair nor practical to try and compare them to much longer, much higher budget shows. Moreover, they are developing their own tropes and styles and on the whole exhibit a different character to their televisual brethrin.

That said, there wasn’t a lot of competition in this category. Both these shows are Felicia Day creations, and whilst I did watch other web series over the course of the year, I can’t deny that Felicia is the mistress of this genre – she has not only talent but the extra experience of being one of the founders of this artform. It means that she’s been at it for longer, but also that she’s better known. Nevertheless, it is notable that The Guild greatly outstripped Dragon Age: Redemption. I suspect this is in part due to the fact that Felicia will have had much less control in the latter, but I also didn’t find her own performance as convincing. In all honesty, The Guild is just in a league of its own. It has the geek-following to bring in stars for the extensive cameos that were a feature of this series, and it’s starting to get the money that allows it to do more things. It’s also excellently and knowingly written for the audience that powers the Internet: geeks. Not to mention the spot on performances of the other cast members: Vincent Caso, Jeff Lewis, Amy Okuda, Sandeep Parikh, and Robin Thorsen.

It’s a deserved win, but with more and more people finding it natural to watch their visual content online, more TV stars using short videos as a way to get a bit more exposure and make a bit more cash on the side (see, for example, David Mitchell’s Soapbox), there’s a blooming new arm of the media that I’m thinking I need to investigate further in the coming year. I’m interested to see how things develop.

The Serene Womble for Best Actor Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw as Richard IIElligible Actors: This category is open to any actor in any recent production that I’ve reviewed in the past year – film, TV, radio, podcast, whatever. I do not discriminate by gender. It’s a fight to the melodramatic death and the best actor wins, regardless of what’s between their legs or how they identify.

This was a tough one. I feel bad for stinting Peter Dinklage for the second year running after praising him so highly, but it was a strong field, and he did contribute to the overall Game of Thrones win – keep it up, Peter, there’s always next year. Lena Headey was also giving all the players a run for their money with her outstanding performance as Ma-Ma in Dredd 3D – a real performance of a lifetime. But I can’t deny the just deserts for Ben. He took a role I’d never especially liked or understood and made me see it from a completely different angle – an angle that was utterly compelling and heart-breaking. In all honesty I was far less impressed with Parts II and III of The Hollow Crown (and I somehow missed Part IV), and I’ll not deny that Tom Hiddleston did a good job, but Richard II blew me away, and Ben Whishaw was the lycnhpin of that production. Incandescent. Any actor that can ellucidate not just the character they are portraying but the themes of the play and have that render their performance more compelling rather than less, and to such a level… sheer genius.

Thank you, Ben, for showing me Richard II the way you see him. Have a Womble.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel Rome Burning, by Sophia McDougall
Rome Burning cover art Eligible Novels: A Dance With Dragons, Kraken Romanitas, and Rome Burning

This one was probably the hardest. Kraken is the most imaginative novel I’ve reviewed this year, and it was certainly a gripping as well as intelligent read. However, it did have some minor gender issues, the attempt at rendering London accents was unconvincing, and although I found the exploration of personal identity fun, it was inconsistent.

Rome Burning‘s alternate history setting was imaginative in a different way. For exploration of gender, race, and cultural issues it was outstanding. The characters were interesting and varied. The pace was fast and gripping. The politics, nuanced and intriguing. And, overall, the harder-to-define ‘squee’ quotiant was just higher than for anything (new) I’ve read in a long time.

Romanitas, the first book in the trilogy of which Rome Burning is the second, was also good, gripping, and squee-worthy, but the writing was not quite as strong and the world-building was more developed in the second volume.

A Dance with Dragons is what it is: a novel to which I have mysteriously devoted a surprisingly large chunk of my life in reviewing; part of a long series that has given me both great joy and great frustration. Perhaps it is unfair to put it up for assessment when the review is as yet incomplete, but I’ll give you a sneak preview and say that, for all its good points, A Dance with Dragons was not really competition for any of the above.

The Serene Womble for Best Comic Romatically Apocalyptic
A wallpaper made by Alexius from one panel of Romantically Apocalyptic

Eligible Comics: Real Life Fiction and Romantically Apocalyptic

Another new category, and only two in it, but I couldn’t leave them by the wayside. Both of these are excellent, and I thoroughly recommend them to all of you. Both are surreal, hilariously funny, and gender balanced. Romantically Apocalyptic has an edge for me by being, well, apocalyptic; but then again, Real Life Fiction has Manicorn. The real clincher is the artwork, which, as you can see, is stunning. I have never seen anything like it in a web comic. Or any comic. Or ever. And the creator, Vitaly S Alexius, hands this stuff out for free. There are no two ways about it: this comic wins.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Film The Glass Slipper
The Glass Slipper promo imageEligible Films: Robocop, Soldier’s Girl, The Glass Slipper

That’s right, I’m giving the award to a film it’s virtually impossible to buy anymore. It’s not available on Amazon (there’s a Korean film called Glass Slipper, but it’s a different movie), it’s never been made into a DVD, the only videos I can find are US vids on eBay, the cheapest was going for about £16 (inc. P&P) at time of posting. I don’t know if it’d even play on a non-US machine. My copy was taped off the telly in the 1980s. But if you can get it, I urge you to make the effort. And this is really what reviewing via time machine is all about: drawing attention to classics and forgotten works of art. How can we get great films like this pressed for DVD if nobody speaks up to say that they are wanted?

The Glass Slipper is beautiful, sweet, and knowing. To me, it is the definitive cinderella story, and that’s not just the nostalgia talking. I feared it would be when I went to rewatch for this review, but it’s not. This was a feminist take on Cinderella in 1955, long before anyone even dreamt of Ever After. And it doesn’t sacrifice the romance for its message; it is a heart-breaking, life-affirming, challenging, witty, and beautiful work of art.

This is not to discredit its competition, however; both of the other films were clear contenders, although each is very different to the others, and it was hard to make the comparison. Robocop is a cleverly written and directed critique of capitalism. Its ultra-violence and gritty realism stand at stark odds to The Glass Slipper’s colourful fairytale punctuated with surrealist dance-interludes. Soldier’s Girl is a moving and powerful adaptation of the true story of a soldier who was beaten to death for loving a transgender woman. It perhaps didn’t have the artistry of the other two movies, but I don’t know that you want a lot of whistles and bells for such a movie – its task is to tell someone else’s tale and command the viewer to witness a crime and recognise an injustice. It would be wrong for a director to grandstand and steal the show. So, what do you do, when confronted with three such different films, ones that resist judgement on equal grounds?

I think you have to go with your gut. The Glass Slipper is the one that had the deepest personal influence on me, playing a pivotal role in shaping my psyche and helping me figure out what sort of a woman I wanted to grow up to be. Children’s or ‘family’ movies are often over-looked as less serious art objects than ‘adult’ films*, but they help to form the worldview a child is exposed to when they are trying to figure out what this existence, this life, is all about. Films like The Glass Slipper, which show a child a multiplicity of roles for women, are incredibly important, especially when they do so in the context of a story that is usually cast to define women as romantic creatures whose ‘happily ever after’ lies in marriage, and not in independant thought. Doing that whilst keeping the romantic centre of Cinderella’s tale intact is a masterful stroke. It deserves this award.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Actor Lee Pace

Eligible actors: anyone who has acted in a film I had to time travel to watch.

It may not have garnered the illustrious Time Traveling Womble for Best film, but I can’t deny the Womble to Lee Pace – head and shoulders above the rest – there really wasn’t any competition. Lee Pace plays Calpernia, the transgendered woman that Barry Winchell fell in love with, and was brutally killed for loving. The gentle, understated approach to this sensitive role is spot on. I imagine a lot of reviews of this film will have said something to the effect of what a ‘convincing woman’ Lee Pace made – I’m not even sure what that means, but it’s the sort of thing people say when they discuss a man playing a transgendered role. I’ve known a number of transgendered women – they’re as varied as any other random woman would be from another; they’re as varied as people. Which is not the same as saying that they have nothing in common or don’t have shared experiences. I don’t want to make any sweeping characterisations of what it is to be a transgendered woman and then proclaim that I think Lee Pace matched that stereotype. What I’m saying is that he portrayed a well-rounded character – a person with loves and passions and heart-ache, with interests both important and trivial; a person whose story moved me and made me think about an important issue.

The point that moved me most – that stood out – was a moment in the above scene. It spoke to me powerfully even though it was speaking about an experience I’ve never had, and am never likely to have. Because it’s a scene in one sense about a man struggling with figuring out his own sexuality in the high-pressure environment of being a soldier in the context of the US Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy – only revoked just over a month before I reviewed this film; still in force when it was made. To a large extent, that’s what the film is about. But it’s also about a woman, struggling to be acknowledged as a woman, finding it almost impossible to date, even though she is beautiful and charismatic, because straight men won’t acknowledge her as a woman. And here she has found a man, a man she is falling in love with, and she must always be asking herself: is this just an experiement, for him? Am I his way of figuring himself out? And all this time she has been loving and supportive and understanding that this is hard, for him, but here she finaly shows her pain and anxiety. Yet, it’s still within the context of that loving, caring, understanding character. Once he has affirmed his love for her she subsumes her own pain to his need for support. It is done with so much subtlety and nuance. Lee Pace isn’t the one bawling his eyes out in this scene, but the emotion is nonetheless powerful.

That’s acting. Acting and sensitivity; just exactly what the role needed.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Novel The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King
Cover art: The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the ThreeEligible Novels: The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish and The Dark Tower, Vol. 2: The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King.

I did think about including some of the works of Anne McCaffrey in this category, as I did talk about a number of them in her memorial post, but ultimately I decided that what I was really doing was celebrating a woman’s life’s work, rather than giving a review. Besides, I might want to review some of them properly somewhere down the line.

As for the two remaining novels… well, it was an unfair match. The Drawing of the Three is basically my most favourite book. The Blazing World is an important book that more people should read. It’s historically valuable and truly remarkable for its time. But it’s also the offspring of a genre (novel writing) in its infancy – the very first science fiction novel, in 1666. Don’t believe me? Go read the post.

As for The Dark Tower – ah… I suspect I shall spend my whole life trying to tease apart why it affects me so. My post, ‘Meditations on Death‘ explores just one aspect of my its power – the seductive power of the concept of death-as-release, what makes us resist its allure, and how this is expertly explored in The Drawing of the Three.

And, last of all:

The People’s Choice Award The Guild, Season 5
The Guild cast in the costumes of their avatarsPerhaps the most arbitrary of all the awards, this is the one you voted for with your feet. The selection for this award is based solely on the review post with the single largest number of hits. And this year it was a landslide, with 8,431 hits and counting, this post has had more hits than my home page. It’s had several thousand more hits than the total for all hits of my most popular month (July). The closest runners up are The Amazing Spider-man and The Hollow Crown (both around 1,000).

And it’s not even because it’s been on the blog since October last year – the hits suddenly started raining in in July. I don’t know what it was, but it seems like all of a sudden the Internet woke up to The Guild, and all I can say is that it couldn’t be more well deserved. Congrats, Felicia and friends: they like you, they really, really like you!

And that’s it! The awards have been awarded, and it’s time to start all over again, selecting novels and films and TV shows and comics and web series, and kittens only know what else, to review in a brand new Womblevonian year.

Stay serene and max for happiness, yo.

*Not that kind, dirty minds!

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.

Review: Romanitas, by Sophia McDougall

Covert Art: RomanitasTitle: Romanitas
Author: Sophia McDougall
Series/Stand alone: Volume One of the Romanitas Trilogy
Genre: Alternate History/Fantasy
First Published: 2005
Edition Reviewed: Gollancz (2011)
Hb/Pb/ebook: ebook – Kindle
Price: £4.99 on Amazon at time of posting.


Rome never died. The Empire is as strong as ever and ruled by the Novious family. Marcus is the son of Leo Novious, brother to the emperor and heir to the throne. But as the book opens tragedy has struck. Leo and his wife Clodia have died in a car crash. Although succession is not guaranteed, Marcus is the tacit favourite for heir in Leo’s place. But Marcus is only 16. He has never liked the grandeur of Rome, he feels intimidated by his more confident cousin, Drusus, and he hates being weighted on by slaves, which his own father had refused to own.

It is with relief, then, that Marcus is called back to his parents’ estate by Leo’s friend and the executor of his will, Varius. But the relief is short lived. Varius and his wife, Gemella, reveal to him that they suspect Leo and Clodia were murdered because of their plans to overthrow slavery once Leo became emperor. As they are speaking, however, Gemella eats a sweet that had been in a parcel given to Marcus by his aunt, Makaria, before he left Rome. Gemella collapses and dies – poisoned by sweets intended for Marcus. Varius helps Marcus to flee, giving him a map to a secret refuge for runaway slaves.

Meanwhile, Una, a slave in Britannia, frees her brother, Sulien, from a prison ship that had been taking him to be crucified for rape. Sulien is not a rapist, but he made the mistake of sleeping with the daughter of his owner, and it is forbidden for a slave to sleep with a free woman. Una and Sulien have unusual abilities: Una can read minds, and to some extent direct people’s thoughts; Sulien can see how the body works, and heal it. Una cannot put a thought into someone’s mind, but she can distract them by bringing some thoughts to prominence over others. This is very useful when you’re an escaped slave trying to keep your fugitive brother safe.

Una and Sulien flee to the continent and encounter Marcus. Their first instinct is to turn him in. A large sum of money has been offered for his safe return, and it is rumoured that the family curse has come upon him, and he has gone mad – a danger to himself. Sulien suggests that they could trade Marcus for their freedom, and a pardon, but Marcus persuades them that he is fleeing for his life, and Una can tell that he isn’t mad. He promises them the money, the pardon, and their freedom if they let him go, and offers to take them to the slave refuge he is going to himself. The slaves and the heir to the empire flee together, heading for a sanctuary they barely know the location of, whilst in Rome Varius strives to protect Marcus by concealing his escape.

How was it?

Bloody awesome, that’s how it was. Stay-up-until-2am-to-finish awesome. Waste-hours-in-the-bath-topping-up-the-hot-water-because-you-don’t-want-to-stop-reading-to-get-out awesome.

Romanitas marked a new experience for me. I follow a lot of authors on Twitter, but I haven’t actually read an author solely based on my social media interactions with them, before. I followed Sophia after I was linked to her Capes, Wedding Dresses, and Steven Moffat blog post. The article included both the full quotation from SM himself and an extensive, accurate, entertaining, and fair take-down of what the Moff had said. It chimed very strongly with my own views about sex and gender, which is something that happens all too infrequently. The more I followed her and the more I read from her, the more she talked very well-articulated sense. Blog writing and fiction writing are not the same thing, and I was by no means sure from this that she would have a fiction writing style that I got on with, but I thought: what the hey? I’m bored of reading books that trip me up on gender issues when I’d much rather get caught up in the action – at the very least I think I can depend on her not to do that.

And oh my, but I’m glad I did. Looking at the reviews on Amazon, there was a surprising split. Lots of people had given it five stars, and lots of people have given it only one star. You don’t see that often, so I was curious. The most common complaints seemed to be either that a) the reader had been expecting an alternate history, and what were these psychic abilities they had found in their porridge?; or b) the reader had found the prose impossibly dense. The first I dismiss – it’s a matter of taste. I love crossing genres and see no reason to be bound by what are, in any case, loose groopings of linguistic convenience and bookshop shelving. If you don’t like fantasy in your alternate history, don’t read a book where the main character can read people’s minds. It’s not the book’s fault.

The second criticism, though, just puzzles me. This is not a dense book. I’ve seen it likened to China Miéville as a compliment, too, but I don’t see that, either. From the reviews I was expecting something either Miéville lush and maybe a bit purple, Stephen King rich and detailed, or Mervyn Peake impenetrable. I suspected not the last, as the positive reviews rebuked this, and I’m a King fan and occasional Miéville reader, so I don’t mind a wordy book if the words are well-used, but I wouldn’t really equate Sophia’s writing to any of the above. The style was clear and it set the scenes well, but at no point did I feel that the description got in the way of the story – quite the reverse. In fact, one of the few criticisms I might make is that first chapter is noticeably weaker than the rest, as it was a bit difficult to visualise the scene. I know very little about the architecture of Rome and was still settling into the new world Sophia was creating, so I had a little trouble placing people within the scene and imagining where they were. The problem did not recur in the rest of the book, however. The only reason I note it is to say that if you’re not immediately captured by the first chapter, keep reading – it pretty much instantly finds its groove and starts moving.

This is a fast-paced novel of disperate threads coming together in culminating tension. The characters are rich and well-rounded. There are plentiful characters of both genders, all of whom have their strengths and their flaws. Una is simply fabulous. Her angry-at-the-world spiky strength, determination, and defensiveness remind me oh-so-strongly of the girl I was at that age. I could have taken on anything, and yet I was crushed by the oppressive reality of how cruel the world could be. It made me closed off and determined, and it didn’t make me a lot of friends, but it helped me to survive. I was stronger then than I ever shall be again. Una is like that, and with greater reason. I can’t describe how wonderful it is to have a female protagonist like this, especially as it is recognised that her strength is also a flaw. To be tough like that is also to shut down on the world, to not make room for others. Moreover, Una and Marcus are given opportunities to save each other. The plotline of the slave girl and the emperor’s nephew could so easily go over into a painful Cinderella story where the tough girl is rescued from her squalid life by the handsome prince, but Romanitas skillfully avoids this without turning Una into an implausible superwoman, leaving a swathe of foolish menfolk in her wake.

The other characters are also rich and diverse. I’ll confess I enjoyed the galdiatrix, Ziye, more than I would have expected. It would be easy to insert a gladiatrix and make her some implausible, cartoon Amazon, but Ziye’s past as a fighter is used lightly. It is something she escaped from, something she doesn’t talk about, but a fact of power and skill for killing that exists in her background and colours the few nice moment where it becomes relevant. Equally, I found the escaped slave, Pyrrha, and her daughter Iris, just as compelling. Pyrrha escaped slavery and took Iris with her, crossing hundreds of miles to find safety, after which she retreated into a shell of despair, convinced that they would never be safe, with patient Iris looking after her. Women in all their weaknesses and their strengths, and men, too. Marcus is intelligent and possessed of that germ of leadership that could make him something one day, but still every inch the sixteen year old boy. Dama, the fiery revolutionary, crippled physically by what happened to him as a slave, but also mentally driven by it into a single-mindedness that is its own prejudice. Delir, the ordinary man who became a leader when he simply decided one day that enough was enough, pulled a slave down from a cross, and went on the run with his daughter in tow.

The exploration of privilege is deftly handled. A story about slavery set in the modern day is crying out for some discussion of privilege, and it could very easily be overdone and heavy-handed. Romanitas does not have this problem. The striking contrast between Marcus’s and Una’s positions produces a thorn in their relationship at several points, but although the narrative never denies Marcus’s privileged upbringing, it does not blame him for it, either. It acknowledges, rather, the difficulty one who has privilege can find in trying to understand the difficulties faced by those who don’t, whilst elsewhere other characters take up the burden of exemplifying casual and unexamined privilege. No one is painted entirely flat, though. Even Gabinius, the business tycoon whose life is founded on the work of slaves, is not a character without humanity. This is the lesson so often missed: the privilege discussion is not concerned with dividing the world into the privileged and the underprivileged. Rather, it calls on all of us to recognise privilege both in others and in ourselves, and to see that each of us is privileged in some ways and not in others. Painting those who, without thought, benefit from the oppression of those less privileged than themselves as evil is no more an answer than insisting that the problems of others cannot be as great as they say simply because it does not seem to be so very bad from the outside. Romanitas does not provide an indepth discussion of these issues – that would detract too much from its story – but it acknowledges and incorporates them; it is written in a way that recognises the complexity of the world and human interactions. I only wish we lived in a world where recognising that a novel has done so went without saying.

The setting is also delightful in its similarities and differences from our world. I haven’t read a lot of alternate history and I’m not a historian, but I enjoyed Sophia’s modernised Roman Empire. To my novice eye it seems well-researched, complete with a timeline of the alternate history at the back. There were only two drawbacks, for me, one of which is not the novel’s fault, but the Kindle’s – or its adaptation for the Kindle, perhaps. I speak of the map in the front. Where the changing political status of nations forms a major premise of your novel, the map at the front becomes more than a curiousity, but in the Kindle edition the map is too small to read, and it’s too cumbersome to jump back to it and then find your place again in any case. I would have loved to be able to flip freely back and forth and was frustrated by my inability to do so. I was pleased with myself for working out that the Sinoan Empire was China, cursed myself for taking so long to realise that Terranova was the US (the New World), and utterly failed to work out that Nionia was Japan.

The other point I’m not sure if I liked or didn’t like. Throughout the novel, many words that would have had Greek origins were shifted to what would have been their Latin alternatives. This is nifty and pleasing at first glance, but upon reflection rankled slightly. The main characters all speak Latin, but I don’t, I’m reading English. The whole novel is in translation, and far more than the Latin/Greek shifts would have changed linguistically as a result of a prolonged occupation of Great Britain by Rome. Which meant that the more I thought about it, the less sense it made for the telephone to be rendered as the ‘longdictor’, or the helicopter as the ‘volucer’. I’m probably over-thinking it – it’s all just colour, after all, a way of portraying how things have changed, and Sophia is clear that her linguistic choices are stylistic in a note at the end – but every now and then it would throw me. I don’t know. I’m still torn between thinking that it adds something to the novel, and that it detracts from it. I suspect that it is a sum game, or ‘worth throwing in overall’. As problems go, it’s very minor.

Lastly, there was an interesting flutter towards discussing religion, as Dama has converted to a monotheism that may be Judaism or Christianity (I wasn’t quite sure*), and it looks like Una might, too. In a world where pantheism has retained its dominance I was curious that monotheism should be given this focus without any exploration of the contrast. Everyone else seems at best apathetic towards the gods and their doings. It feels like a missed opportunity, and the themes surrounding the monotheistic elements left oddly hanging. Of course, not every story has to give quite the tour de force that so delighted me in the remake of Battlestar Galactica, and the character’s reasons for conversion were plausible, it just felt a little lopsided, is all. But still, this was a minor point that barely intruded and made very little difference to the general plot.

Overall this was a deftly executed, thoughtful, fun, engaging read that sucked me in and tugged appropriately on my emotions. I recommend it without hesitation. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. So refreshing to find a new author that one feels one can trust to deliver. My only decision now is whether to buy the next volume for the Kindle or as a physical book.

* Zoroastrianism, apparently, so I was wide of the mark, there. But the point about monotheism vs polytheism stands.

What I said, but better…

I don’t often post just to point you somewhere else, but sometimes it’s worth it. Sophia McDougall is one hell of a writer on gender issues in modern SF&F. This was first brought to my attention by her post in response to Steven Moffat’s unbelievably mysogynist comments that half the Internet seems to know all about, and the other half seems blissfully ignorant of and even defensive-about-in-ignorance. To be fair, since the whole Riversong thing there’s been less of the ‘Yes, I’ve heard he’s secretly sexist, but I don’t believe it – he writes such strong women!’. Sophia’s post came out before the ‘My whole purpose in life – becoming an archeologist and a badass, everything – was to catch up with the Doctor because I love him and need him to complete me’ second-half-of-season reveal. When I read it, I felt like the scales fell from my eyes. Now it feels generous.

Given the number of times I’ve seen her post linked to I was surprised to find that no one I spoke to at the SFX Weekender had read it. So, in case you missed it, here, complete with full and damning quotes from the Moff himself, is one post you should read: Capes, Wedding Dresses, and Steven Moffat.

But that’s not the post I started this one to draw your attention to. It’s this: SFX Weekender and the Nudes in the Metropolitan Gallery. She points out a number of things that I had missed, and (again) makes a case I want to put forward better than I could. I didn’t notice the gender disparity in panels, but then I only went to two, one of which was the Q & A with the kickass Eve Myles. But yeah – Sophia really would have been an ideal person to have on a panel, especially when relative unknowns like my mate Dave (who, for all his good qualities, only had his first book come out on the Thursday of the SFX Weekender itself – promotional, yes, but perhaps not an authority) got a look in alongside the obvious choices, like China Mieville.

Anyway, where mine is one person’s point of view, Sophia’s post has breadth, style, and nuance. Go read.