THIS IS THE ROMAN EMPIRE. NOW.
Romanitas, a début novel with an alternate history premise that promises more than it delivers.
(Romanitas Trilogy, Book 1)
Genre: Alternate History, Fantasy, Young Adult
Format: Paperback, 608 Pages
Date: 24th February 2011 (First Published 2005)
It is almost a certainty that anyone who picked up this title did so because of its central premise; the Roman Empire never declined and fell, instead it endured, encompassing two thirds of the world, and continues into the 21st century… Now! Such a simple, yet intriguing premise inevitably creates a high level of expectation in a reader due to the endless story possibilities; expectations that Sophia McDougall as a first time author had almost no chance of meeting with her début novel.
Romanitas, book one of the Romanitas trilogy, is a tale of political intrigue that follows a trio of teenagers who unwittingly become embroiled in a conspiracy emanating from the highest levels of Rome. The three protagonists are: Britons, Una and Sulien, a sister and brother separated in early childhood now living apart as slaves in the city of London; the third, Marcus Novius Faustus Leo, a young Roman prince and heir to the Imperial throne.
The story commences in Rome with the recently orphaned Marcus mourning the deaths of his mother and father who died in a car accident. The anguish of losing his parents is compounded further when Varius, a close friend and associate of his parents, arranges a private meeting with Marcus to reveal that his mother and father were murdered, and that his life too may be in danger.
Though Marcus is initially sceptical, he is quickly forced to reconsider when the wife of Varius becomes the unintended casualty of an attempt on his life. Varius persuades Marcus to flee from Rome and instructs him to depart to a secret sanctuary for runaway slaves located in the south of Gaul; a safe haven that his slavery abolitionist parents had helped to establish.
Elsewhere, hundreds of miles across the empire, in the city of London, young slave girl Una has been searching for her brother for several years. She finally learns of his whereabouts when she discovers that he is due to be crucified on the banks of the river Thames, after being accused of raping the daughter of his master. Una subsequently embarks on a daring rescue mission to free Sulien from the prison-ship he’s being detained on, and much to the surprise of both Sulien and Una, the rescue is successful. Now reunited for the first time since childhood, the siblings set off as runaway slaves across the channel to mainland Europe, and head south hoping to leave the empire.
It all sounds very intriguing and exciting so far, doesn’t it? Sadly, Romanitas becomes even more of a chore to read from this point, at least until the final few chapters. Several elements of its narrative conspire to prevent the story from maximising its potential, and diminishes the enjoyment that could have been attained by readers.
The plot is incredibly predictable, telegraphing every twist and turn, robbing readers of any kind of shocks or surprises. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will fail to foresee Una and Sulien crossing paths with the runaway Marcus; or foresee the trio set aside their differences and mistrust to travel together to the slave sanctuary; or foresee the prince and the slave-girl fall for each other in spite of themselves; or foresee Una and Sulien helping Marcus to return home to Rome to bring to light the conspiracy to assassinate him, and expose the conspirators, for example.
The author also includes one fantasy element to an otherwise realistic narrative, and it’s a decision that will no doubt cause eyes to roll, and be a source of annoyance to some readers. Both Una and Sulien possess supernatural powers; Una can read minds as well as cloud them, causing people to see things that aren’t there, or not see things that are; while Sulien has healing powers that allow him to see inside people’s bodies and psychically repair the source of any patients’ injuries and ailments. These abilities are jarringly out of place, even if the author had explained the origin of these powers; which she doesn’t.
Sophia McDougall is apparently also a playwright and poet, and this shines through in her writing. Her beautiful prose is detailed and has a poetic quality that evokes vivid imagery, and is a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, instead of helping the narrative flow, it hinders it, by slowing down the pace of the story, and failing to elicit any sense of tension or urgency to proceedings. As a consequence, what could have been a page-turning thriller is tarnished by large parts of the book that tend to drag and require extra effort to read through.
I’m not certain that Romanitas was intended to be a Young Adult novel, so the decision to make the three protagonists teenagers seemed an unusual choice. While having teenage leads isn’t inherently a negative, it does make this story more implausible as the trio of characters are just a little too capable for such young teens. That being said, the ages of Una, Sulien and Marcus was the least of my problems with the characters. With the possible exception of Una at times, I found it hard to care about such bland and tedious, poorly realised individuals. It’s doubtful if even ageing them by a decade or so would have made them any more compelling or interesting. Perhaps it would have been better to approach Romanitas as if it had been written as a Young Adult novel.
I suspect that the source of most of my disappointment with Romanitas, and presumably that of many other readers, is that it fails to live up to the great weight of expectations. With that in mind, I would recommend that prospective readers keep their expectations in check. Romanitas is a book that will be enjoyed more by those with low or no expectations.
In conclusion, Romanitas is by no means a bad novel. Despite its flaws, it does eventually reach an exciting end, one sufficient enough to persuade you to put the rest of the trilogy on your to read list, though it will probably be a while before I can motivate myself to read on, as I can’t help but lament the missed opportunity that Romanitas represents; a story whose premise promised so much more than it delivers.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.