Friday, October 28, 2005

ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall

I'm claustrophobic. I'd just started a new job and the training was taking place in a tiny little room on the second floor, so I was rather stressed and desperate to escape. The other trainees had headed out to lunch together but, feeling rather shy, I wandered off by myself down the Murray St Mall. I had an hour to kill, so Angus and Robertson seemed the likeliest destination. I hadn't even entered the store when a new release caught my eye. Or rather, the cover did. Three crucifixes took the front view with a modern city-scape in the background.
This is the Roman Empire. Now.

The title and bi-line hooked me. A scan of the blurb reeled me in. I gave the woman my credit cared and two minutes later the book was mine.

I spent the next 45 minutes reading. After that any space in my schedule gave me an excuse to open the book and lose myself in the modern Roman Empire.
Murder, slavery, intrigue and death. They're all here in this alternative history that asks the question, "What if the Roman Empire hadn't fallen?"

Here's the premise.

Alternative History usually hinges on one central point being different. In Romanitas that point occurred in the years 945-957 AUC (192-204 CE).

Apparently, in our reality, there was a plot to kill Emperor Publius Helvius Pertinax. The plot succeeded, one thing led to another and after a while the Senate was stripped of its authority by one Septimus Severus. Corruption infiltrated the army and, hey presto, the whole Empire becane unstable and fell.

In McDougall's vision, however, the plot is discovered and the Empire strengthened by a newer, bolder, more loyal Praetorian Guard.

Fast forward a couple of millenia to the year 2758 AUC (Ab Urb Condita). All our mod-cons exist and the world is generally an okay place.
The first character we meet is Marcus Novius, heir apparent to the Empire. His parents have just been killed in a car accident and he's trying not to display his grief to the watching world.

Cut to London. On a prison barge in the middle of the Thames, Una is attempting to save her brother from a sentence of crucifixion. They succeed and the slaves are able to make their escape.

As expected in any novel, the fugitives and the heir meet and their fates entwine. They go on a road trip together and so the story really begins.

So, that's the nuts and bolts of the plot. Girl meets boy. Girl is empathic, boy owns 1/3 of the world. Boy is target of political plot. Girl helps him. They fall in love. Empire threatens to collapse.

Did I enjoy the story? The reader in me loved it. It was fast-paced and full of action, yet also took the time to enjoy the minutiae of life. It was, however, flawed and could have done with a technical re-write. Many of the sentences were clumsily written and unclear in their intent. The author was rather reliant upon adjectives and adverbs, the hallmark of a novice writer.

Romanitas was McDougalls' debut novel and it shows as the solid story line was often let down by poor execution. As an editor I constantly found myself reaching for a blue pen as I zeroed in on the small problems. This, as you can imagine, led to a rather disjointed read.
On the whole, however, I did enjoy the easiness of the novel (especially after a week of proofing phat phantasies) and would recommed Romanitas to anyone looking for a summer read or for those travelling interstate or overseas.


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