Margaret George has done it again – she’s delivered another vivid, dramatic historical fiction that sweeps readers along on a journey of exhilaration and betrayal. This time, her focus is on ancient Rome, beginning around the year 40 AD, and the early life of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, later called Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. The novel opens with an early memory of Lucius, when his uncle, the infamous Emperor Caligula, tries to drown him in the sea and allows a sympathetic sailor to rescue him. From then on, Lucius’s life is one set of traumas, upheavals, and betrayals to the next as he struggles to find his place in a dangerous political world he doesn’t yet understand. When he does eventually and unexpectedly rise to power as the youngest man ever to become the emperor of Rome, he must learn to trust himself and figure out the intricacies of Roman politics while still coming into his own as a man.
As usual, George has done impeccable research in this novel. Every detail, every event, is minutely depicted. I felt as though I could close my eyes and then open them again upon ancient Rome. Nero himself is a sympathetic figure, sensitive, well rounded, thoughtful, peaceful, not at all the man driven by the madness that most of us are familiar with from the works of Tacitus. George is a (possibly diabolical) genius at crafting Nero. Throughout the book, especially as he got older, I found myself wondering if this was the real man, or if this was how he saw himself and he was so out of touch that he didn’t notice everyone else just placating him. It was absolutely brilliant writing. It took me a minute to make up my mind that no, he wasn’t actually unhinged as history would have us believe. As the Author’s Note very logically explains, unpopular leaders do not get memorials made for them, are not beloved by the commoners during their lifetimes, are not honored and missed by those common people after their deaths. His real error was not seeing how his actions were rubbing the nobles the wrong way. He wasn’t playing by the rules they were used to or approved of. He wanted to do things in a new way. I think honestly that a lot of his behavior could have been explained by his youth. Nero was at the time the youngest person to become Emperor, and what teen doesn’t want to set the world on fire in some way? Add power and prestige to that and I can easily see how he could ruffle feathers and not see the danger he is in until too late. But mad? No. Nero was vilified, a victim of history like Richard III was.
Some of my favorite scenes or people in the book:
- Locusta. I have always been interested in herbal medicines and poisons (yeah, I know). Seeing a strong woman use them and never get caught is terrific.
- Acte. A freed slave who Nero wants to marry but she isn’t about to fall for that nonsense. She loves him as best she can and they both have to deal with the repercussions of that.
- Boudicca. I’ve always been fascinated by her and thought it was really interesting to see her from the perspective of her male enemies. I’ve only ever read books about her from her own 1st person perspective and so it was a new, enlightening experience to read from the other side.
- The scene when Nero realized his own mother was heading up a conspiracy to kill him. That was powerful and wrenching. I’m really close to my mother, and my mother is actually not a sociopath. Huzzah! So I can’t really imagine what it must have felt like for Nero to realize that the one person who is supposed to love you unconditionally and always support you no matter what is not only NOT doing that but is actively trying to kill you. What a horrifically surreal experience.
- The scene when Nero and Acte are looking at the villa he is building for them. I liked the visual of them deciding what to put in where as it was built, much like any couple would do when having a home built today. It felt so domestic and normal. It really made them both feel far more accessible than they might have otherwise. I loved it.
Literally my only quibbles, and they are super minor, are that the parts with Boudicca were short (I am fascinated by Boudicca and was hoping for a little more with her), and that I have to wait until book two to read the rest of Nero’s story. I mean, I don’t have to wait, I know how history records Nero’s story. But I want to see what Margaret George does with it. So I am very eagerly awaiting the next instalment!
Publisher/ Year: Berkley, March 2017
PS: So, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. I review quite a few books for the Historical Novel Society, and now for a new site called Discovering Diamonds, and I also frequently request galleys from NetGalley. When I saw that Margaret George’s new book about Nero was available I burned up my keyboard requesting it as fast as I possibly could. A few weeks later, my request was approved. Only by then, I’d forgotten I had requested it myself and thought that my person with HNS had sent it to me to review. I read it, wrote a review, and sent it to her. She replied back that she was delighted that I loved the book so much, but that she hadn’t sent it to me! I swear I have early onset. But then a few days after that, someone from the publisher emailed me and asked if I wanted to be a part of the blog tour for the novel. Of course I said yes. And then a few days ago, my HNS contact remembered my interest and asked if I would want to handle an author interview with Ms George – um, YES! – and so that will be in the May edition of the HNS Review. For that, I will put on my academic hat and actually use my education and formal words. 🙂