Book Review: Rome Burning by Sophia McDougall

Rome Burning
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Rome Burning by Sophia McDougall
Paperback: 608 pages
Publisher: Gollancz (14 April 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0575096936

Order Rome Burning at Amazon

Reviewed by Jared Shurin

Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series is set in a world in which the Roman Empire never fell. The initial point of divergence takes place in 192 AD after the Emperor Commodus had bankrupted the Empire. Following his assassination, the rule of Rome fell to Publius Helvius Pertinax. Pertinax began a series of legal and economic reforms, but they never saw fruit. His extremely short (three month) reign was also ended by assassination – this time by disgruntled members of his own Praetorian Guard.

In Ms. McDougall’s version of events, Pertinax foiled the attempt on his life and lived to see his reforms put in place and then continued by his son. The Empire was pulled back from the brink of collapse. The series, begun in 2004, is set contemporaneously. When Romanitas begins, the world is divided into three major powers: Roman, Sinoan (Chinese) and Nionian (Japanese). A few areas, such as parts of Africa, remain independent. Others, such as Terranova (the Americas) have been divided between the various empires.

In Romanitas, the technology is established as roughly behind our own. A form of long-distance communication has been invented, as well as huge works of civil engineering, but there’s little evidence of either computers or electronics. Society is also stagnant. Slavery still forms the backbone of the Roman economy and the hierarchical class system is well solidified. Rome is, above all, still an Empire – ruled and limited by the vision of a single man.

Romanitas is a very focused story—a geographically limited footrace for personal survival on the part of its protagonists. As one of the main characters, Marcus, is heir to the empire, the stakes are still high, but, as a text, Romanitas is focused very much on the fate of three individuals.

Its sequel, Rome Burning, goes epic.

Rome Burning was first published in 2007 but has recently been released in a new, re-edited edition. Set three years after the events of the first book, Marcus is back in Rome and established as the Emperor-in-Waiting. Theoretically, life should be easier for our motley trio of heroes, and on the surface, it is. His companions, Sulien and Una, are now freed from slavery. Sulien is a doctor at a charity clinic for slaves, a quixotic effort that struggles along through Marcus’ patronage and the moral blackmail of Rome’s industrial leaders. Una serves Marcus’ informal advisor and even more informal lover. Her uncanny ability to read minds makes her an invaluable assistant, and, no matter how politically awkward it may be, the two of them are very much in love.

Nothing’s ever easy and our heroes are facing problems both old and new. Marcus’ conniving cousin, for example, is still lurking around the fringes, feverishly plotting to take the throne for himself. Although no longer heir to the throne, Drusus is convinced that he will be Emperor.

Marcus is also 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 any change of that magnitude. Marcus and Una’s old allies, an underground network of 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 at least serves as 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 global war.

What follows is a much grander adventure than the preceding novel. Marcus, Una and Sulien, as well as their friends Lal and Varius, are scattered not just around Rome, but around Asia as well. The Sinoan and Nionian Empires, Rome’s equally decadent and compelling global rivals, are both explored at length. Terranova also comes alive in more detail through despatches from the front and high-level conversations between the Emperor’s advisors. 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 a recent interview with Ms. McDougall, she was asked about her authorial decision to keep the characters ‘away from the action’. 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 fulfilment. The action witnessed in Rome Burning supports this philosophy. It is nasty, bloody and un-chivalric. 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 and awkward’) has allowed them a discreet relationship, but they both still accept its impermanency. In Rome Burning, its end is nigh. Becoming betrothed 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.

My sole frustration with Rome Burning is regarding the conclusion. It ends on a cliff-hanger—a large one. With Savage City out in May, readers will now never have to worry about resolving it. But, as a matter of taste, I prefer a book that, as China Miéville phrases it, ‘begins, middles and ends’. Marcus and Una keep up a manic pace in Rome Burning. Given how seductively empathetic they are, by the book’s conclusion, I think that both they and the reader deserve some intratextual respite.

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.

Jared Shurin’s reviews and non-fiction have appeared in The HubWeaponizer,The Literary Platform and Pornokitsch. He’s a native of Kansas City and currently lives in London. In this timeline, at least.


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