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Friday, September 10, 2010

"Empire" by Steven Saylor (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Steven Saylor Website
Order Empire HERE and Roma HERE
Read FBC's Invitation to Roma sub Rosa

INTRODUCTION: Outside speculative fiction, no contemporary writer is more appreciated by me than Steven Saylor for his wonderful Roma sub Rosa series with its main character Gordianus "the Finder" who is my current #1 fiction hero.

In 2007 the author has published Roma, a superb retelling of crucial episodes from the story of early Rome and before from ~1000 BC up to 1 BC and Augustus. I quite liked Roma (A+) but its vignette like nature needed to cover 1000 years of history made it read like a collection of some ten related stories more than a novel.

Empire, the direct sequel to Roma and one my top anticipated non-sff novels of 2010 is even better than I expected since it focuses on a narrower period - 14 AD to 141 AD - and has only four main characters from the male line of the ancient Pinarius family. The shorter time span covered here offers the scope for character development and longer plotlines.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: Empire stands at about 580 pages divided into four parts. Each part follows one Pinarii: Lucius the Augur, his son Titus - and Titus' twin Kaeso who plays a much less important role - Senator and Augur, Titus' son, Lucius the Seeker and Marcus the Sculptor whose parentage I leave to the reader to discover. The novel ends at the apogee of the Roman Empire and clearly promises more to come.

Empire is historical fiction at its best.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Empire directly continues Roma where Lucius was seen as a ten year old boy at the end of the book in 1 BC when he was receiving from his grandfather of the same name an ancient fascinum - the family religious heirloom - that threads all the stories in both novels.

Empire starts 14 years later when Augustus is 77 and failing, while Lucius at 24 is to be inducted as an augur together with the Emperor's grand-nephew Claudius who is of the same age with Lucius. Claudius is a bit of an embarrassment to the Imperial family - he is both Livia (Augustus' wife who had two children from her first marriage and none with the Emperor despite their 50+ years of marriage) and Octavia (Augustus' deceased sister)'s grandson - for his stutter and seeming mental disability, though in truth the future emperor is one of the most learned men in Rome even at this young age. Ominous signs portending great changes appear...

This part is dominated by Augustus and young Claudius, while Lucius is less well developed and more a vehicle to carry the story of Rome from its Imperial beginnings to the first succession and a bit beyond.

The heart of Empire and the best parts are the middle two, with the third one Lucius: the Seeker covering the Flavian dynasty and the start of the Antonines (69-100) just awesome in both cast of characters and action. The portrait of Domitian as a precursor of Stalin is chilling, but Lucius the main hero steals the show and is one of the best characters in all fiction I've read this year.

His father Titus the augur who was sort of friend to both Claudius - whom he ultimately betrays - and Nero to whom he stays loyal to the bitter end - is the second best character of the book and reminded me a bit of Minutus in Mika Waltari's famous novel The Roman, though in a more serious rather than picaresque mode.

The last part is dominated by the Emperor Hadrian and by historical characters, most notably Antinous and Apollodorus; Marcus the Sculptor is apprentice and later son-in-law and right hand of the famous architect, while the beautiful and mysterious lover of the Emperor will be one of his main artistic inspiration.

From its first pages Empire immerses the reader in a vanished but quite familiar milieu. Love stories, including forbidden ones, intrigue, action in the Arena, thrilling escapes,
tons of "it can't be true but actually it was" anecdotes about life in Rome's first century AD - Caligula's salacious experiment to see if the wives of twins Titus or Kaeso can figure out who is who or Nero's marriage to Sporus, the slave boy that is the spitting image of much mourned wife Poppaea are just two of the more outre examples, while Domitian's "death chamber" is one of the most chilling - supernatural portents and more generally a deep sense of the numinous almost everywhere and even hints of magic, as well as many superb characters - you will find all in these almost 600 pages...

With extraordinary detail and world building, Empire is a clear work of love for the author and the single best novel he has written; A++ and a top novel of mine for 2010


Anonymous said...

Oh! This looks really interesting! Thanks for the great review.


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