Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Return to Ancient Rome in "The Will of Augustus"

I have always had a fascination with history, but I must admit that I've spent far too little time exploring the period of Ancient Rome and particularly the transition from a true republic.  But after reading Karen Powell's fictional account The Will of Augustus I figure it is high time I return to the historical period of the ancients.

So hop into the time machine with me and let's travel back to the house of Emperor Augustus and explore the realm of a dying republic and the accompanying rise of a dynasty.

Book Blurb:
Rome, as her uncle Marcus Septimius always likes to say, is unpredictable…

When Gaius Aemilius Papus falls out of political favour, his daughter Aemelia is sent against her will to join the Vestal Virgins in the hope of placating the Emperor Augustus.

Aemilia Secunda, an exuberant, unbiddable ten year old, must relinquish all ties with her family and devote her life to keeping the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta burning, the fire that represents the soul of Rome itself. She must also remain unmarried and chaste. A Vestal who fails to do so faces the most severe of punishments: burial alive.

As Aemelia grows she begins to understand the unique power the Vestals wield. They move in the very highest circle of Roman society, can become financially secure through gifts and, unlike the rest of Roman women, are completely independent.

But just as Aemelia comes to accept her role as a Vestal, she finds herself enmeshed in a plot which is perilously close to the very heart of Roman politics and the issue of Imperial succession, where her very survival hangs in the balance.

My Review:
First thing I will say, it is important to understand some of the oddities of the Roman lifestyle prior to beginning this novel.  The period was an almost "anything goes" attitude, where incestuous relationships were commonplace and children were considered marriageable by the age of thirteen/fourteen, multiple partners of either sex, any age, and status - you name it, they did it.  Now before I scare you off, please note that these references are only hinted at or touched on briefly in very few scenes among The Will of Augustus.  I only mention this because this novel offers a somewhat accurate representation of those attitudes between the lines - but don't let it keep you from considering this interesting read.

Our story opens with a young girl, Aemelia Secunda, attending the funeral of her beloved father.  But she does not stand with her mother, older married sister and children, or her ever-loving uncle.  She must remain apart, unmoved on the surface as the funeral pyre dissolves the features of the man she once called papa - for she is no longer merely a member of a single family unit but a representative of the people before the great goddess Vesta.  Therefore, she must withhold the appearance of favoritism from any and all who claim lineage with her.

Not difficult to do with her cold and heartless mother, who never forgave her youngest daughter for living when Aemelia's twin brother died at birth.  But her mother's own twin, Aemelia's uncle Marcus Septimius, is another matter entirely - especially when he notices the developing beauty peeking around Aemelia's childhood visage.

Leap back several years prior.  Aemelia is a reckless youngster living a privileged life among the lesser of Roman nobility, unstained by the pressures of the world around her or by the political wheel threatening her family life.  Her mother barely tolerates her presence, but her sister, Marcia, father and uncle more than make up for the love denied her - until the political factions press in too close and disrupt her carefree life.

In order to appease Emperor Augustus and secure higher rank in the government, Aemelia's father - under duress - marries off fourteen-year-old Marcia to a young man whose family has strong ties to the emperor.  However, within a year or two, guards are again on their doorstep and escorting her father away to the emperor to answer for questionable associations.  Aemelia's mother once again steps in and through her own machinations, forces Aemelia into accepting a covetous honor - to be named as a Vestal Virgin and spend her life chaste and unmarried while serving as the people's representative in the house of the goddess.  Over the next ten years, Aemelia's forced servitude becomes both a blessing and a curse - and what she sees and experiences changes her in ways she could never foresee.

As far as the overall story goes, I enjoyed reading The Will of Augustus, seeing the daily life of a Roman citizen through the eyes of a child who grows into a woman, the government machinations, family dynamics, and how the smallest steps and decisions can alter so many lives.  There was a period between about 55% and 83%, however, where the story lagged and bogged down with very little of significance happening until picking up and speeding to the end.  The ending also makes it feel as if there is more of the story to be told and makes me wonder if a series is planned (though there is no reference to that possibility).  If it were to become a series, I'd be willing to consider reading the next offering just to see what happens with Aemelia and how she copes with the changes resulting from the trauma.  I really wish the last 17% of the book had been extended and more fleshed out and the slow and uneventful period in the middle condensed.  Perhaps it would've helped the ending not feel quite so abrupt.

The story was told in Aemelia's point-of-view and it was nice to see her thought processes grow from childhood to adulthood.  Good telling instead of showing for the most part kept us following along by her side throughout the story.  However, editing and formatting need some desperate attention.  There was a constant appearance of missing words like 'to, and, but, was,' etc., or duplicate words like 'let them let' and the like.  Also a few tense shifts occurred as if scenes were originally written in present tense then changed to past tense and back again yet not catching all of the necessary wording changes to correct the tense shift.  In regard to formatting, continual pages popped up where the left-hand margin pressed in to the middle of the page and left huge areas of white space along my Kindle.  Sometimes it was only a paragraph or two while others were page after page of this problem.  Extra spacing between paragraphs and hard returns in the middle of a sentence revealed themselves on occasion as well.

If not for the editing and formatting issues, I'd have given four stars to The Will of Augustus for the mostly interesting storyline, but with these issues I'll have to settle with three stars.

If Ancient Rome tickles your fancy, pick up a copy through Amazon US or Amazon UK.

Author Bio:

Author of 2 contemporary novels, 'Catching the Light', 'If Susie Said Jump', both published by Harbour Books. This is my first foray into historical fiction. Educated Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University. Work at York Minster.

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