- Paperback: 496 pages
- Publisher: Orion (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd ); Export ed edition (August 30, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0752874276
- ISBN-13: 978-0752874272
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,739,571 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Rome Burning Paperback – August 30, 2007
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About the Author
Sophia McDougall is in her twenties and studied English at Oxford. She lives in London where she also writes plays and poetry. The ROMANITAS trilogy is her first series of novels.
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Rome Burning is the sequel to Sophia McDougall's debut novel, Romanitas, and the middle book of the Romanitas Trilogy (which concludes with Savage City). The premise of the trilogy is straightforward: the Roman Empire never fell and, by the present day, has gone on to conquer most of the world. However, the Empire is still built on the back of capital punishment, slavery and the occupation of other peoples. The principal characters in the books are Marcus, the imperial heir whose view of life is radically altered after spending time in the first book as a fugitive, and Sulien and Una, the freed slaves who now want Marcus to abolish the institution once and for all. Also, somewhat randomly, Una also happens to have mildly telepathic powers (which definitely seem to have been pared down in this second novel).
Romanitas was a flawed novel. It had a strong premise, but the premise was constantly under-explored throughout the novel. Coupled with somewhat poor characterisation and often stodgy prose, it was a hard book to get through, despite the 'on-the-run' storyline giving rise to some interesting tension. Rome Burning shows massive improvements in some areas but, unfortunately, some significant weaknesses in others.
On the plus side, McDougall's characters are (mostly) much-improved. Sulien, Una and Marcus are all better-defined, with Una in particular becoming a more interesting, complex protagonist and Sulien having a lot more to do this time around. Marcus's development from callow youth to statesman continues, with his former idealism now being tested by political practicality. His desire to end slavery is contrasted against the possible economic collapse of the Empire if he moves too quickly, and his attempts to find a balance (that come across to Sulien, Una and other former slaves as back-pedalling) are constantly misunderstood. There's a lot more meat to the main characters this time around. Unfortunately, our principal antagonist for most of the book, Drusus, is a cartoon villain at best, who is so utterly unsuited for the political skulduggery required that he should never really be a threat to the considerably more intelligent Marcus. The eventual defeat of Drusus's return to power is also chronically under-explained (basically Marcus gets annoyed and makes a speech to his uncle and suddenly everything's okay).
On the worldbuilding front, the alternate Imperial Rome is not particularly convincing, resembling as it does one of those computer game RPG cities which seem to consist of three streets and twenty people. There is no real sense of any life in the city beyond where the immediate action takes place, and it's a genuine surprise when other Roman senators or characters outside of the core cast show up. For the first half of the book, it's a claustrophobic-feeling story rather than the epic it is aiming towards. Things improve a lot when the action moves to Bianjing (where the isolated-from-the-outside-world feeling is much more appropriate) and the scope of the story widens.
The biggest problem is the writing. McDougall favours a very old-fashioned style with frequent POV shifts within the same paragraph, making following what's going on and who's thinking what unnecessarily difficult. Coupled to some fairly indifferent prose, this makes reading the novel rather hard work. In fact, the book is definitely leaning towards the turgid when the halfway-point shift to Bianjing takes place. At this point, fortunately, the book picks up a lot, the writing improves, the pacing turns up a notch (as Drusus's laughable political fumblings take a back-seat to a much more interesting plot about slavery and terrorism) and things become more enjoyable, ultimately culminating in a genuinely tantalising cliffhanger.
Rome Burning (***) is a book that very nearly collapses under the weight of its negatives until they get straightened up and it ultimately becomes a solid read. The presentation of the premise is still highly implausible, characters outside of the central trio can still be sketchy and the writing style can be frustrating, but the latter half of the novel shows an improvement in quality that ultimately makes the experience - just about - worthwhile. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Nothing's ever easy and our heroes are facing problems both old and new. Drusus, for example, is still lurking around the fringes, feverishly plotting to take the throne for himself. Although no longer heir to the throne, Marcus' conniving cousin is convinced that he will be Emperor.
Also, Marcus is finding that his proposed reforms - especially his desired end to slavery - simply aren't happening. The Empire is too bogged down in its economic and cultural quagmire to enact a change of that magnitude. Marcus and Una's old allies, the escaped slaves, have all but given up hope in Marcus. Their loss of faith stings our heroes deeply.
Everything rapidly comes to a head in Rome Burning when Marcus' uncle, the Emperor Faustus, falls ill. Faustus is still the indecisive, muddle-headed Claudian figure he was in Romanitas, but he is, at least a buffer between the barely-adult Marcus and the burdens of state. When events conspire to make Marcus the Regent, he's now dealing with Rome's problems as well as his own.
And Rome's problems are much larger than Marcus' - Rome is burning. Rome - the city - is attacked by terrorists, presumably agents of the rival Nionian empire. Rome - the empire - is also under siege. The Roman wall in Terranova, the great structure that splits the two empires, is proving porous. Nionian and Roman skirmishes are becoming more and more frequent with greater and greater consequences. As much as Marcus would rather spend his regency quietly pushing along his domestic agenda, his first order of business is to avert a global thermonuclear war. (Well, except that nukes haven't been invented. Yet. Mostly.)
What follows is a much grander adventure than the preceeding novel. Marcus, Una and Sulien - as well as Lal and Varius - are scattered not just around Rome, but around Asia as well. The Sinoan and Nionian Empires, Rome's equally-decadent, equally-compelling global rivals, are both introduced and explored. Terranova also comes alive in more detail in the form of despatches from the front and a conversational asides. There's a greater sense of drama as well - more bloodshed, more sneaking about, more explosions and more grand processions. This isn't a case of cinematic sequelitis, this is the rational result of Marcus' new position in life: if Romanitas was the tale of three relative insignificants, Rome Burning is the story of the most important man in the world.
Fortunately, some things don't change. Ms. McDougall continues to foil the detail-heavy traditions of genre by maintaining a tight frame on the characters. Their journeys take them into more exotic locations, but the reader still only sees them through the protagonists' eyes. In our interview (shared earlier today), I implied that she was being almost deliberately perverse - there are battles happening somewhere, but we only hear about them through the news. Ms. McDougall's answer was telling: the characters are where the action is. The conflict in Rome Burning isn't a war - it is about preventing the war. One of the key lessons of Rome Burning is that there's nothing majestic about violence. Marcus and Una, despite their youth, understand this. Their struggle to keep the world from war and terrorism comes as an extension of that belief; their opponents are those that would callously use destruction as a valid tool for political ambition or jingoistic fulfillment. The action witnessed in Rome Burning supports this philosophy. It is nasty, bloody and unchivalric. It isn't about heroism - it is about death.
Ms. McDougall also continues the romantic tragedy that is Marcus and Una's relationship. Romanitas firmly established their star-crossed love. They're a good pair, but a mature one - they're fully aware of the yawning chasm between their social standings. At the start of Rome Burning, Una's elevated social status (that is, from "slave" to "free & awkward") has allowed them a discreet relationship, but they both still accept its impermanency. In Rome Burning, its end is nigh. Becoming bethrothed is Marcus' diplomatic ace in the hole and Marcus is forced to spend it. Without going into the details about the unusual new character that Ms. McDougall introduces, it is simply worth mentioning that the author handles the situation with her usual tact. Ms. McDougall's ability to create human, empathetic, and ultimately soul-destroying scenarios is on full display here.
Rome Burning is the best of both worlds. It maintains Romanitas' excellent tradition of elegantly-scripted, character-focused SF but also increases the stakes with high-powered political tension, global conflict, operatic romance and dire treachery. Rome Burning is not a better book than Romanitas, but it is a more evolved one - with her debut out of the way, Ms. McDougall uses Rome Burning to confidently address greater problems with no less talent.