Romanitas by Sophia McDougall

RomanitasA review by Nalini Haynes

Romanitas introduces Una and Sulien, sibling teenage slaves living in the Roman Empire in London in 2005. Separated after the death of their father, who was also their mother’s owner, they have been working towards being reunited, until Sulien is condemned to crucifixtion after having consensual sex with a free woman who cried rape.

Marcus, nephew to the Emperor, lives in Rome where he is filmed during the funeral service for his parents. An attempt on Marcus’ life causes him to flee, seeking the underground for slaves, on which quest he meets Una and Sulien. Romanitas focuses on their journey, their personal histories, the politics of the empire and their aspirations for the future.

While alternate world stories are not unusual, McDougall has chosen an less common setting in that the Roman Empire did not fall, thus changing the political face of the Earth completely. International politics is hinted at in Romanitas, but has largely been left to later books for development. McDougall has given herself a feast of opportunity with this setting.

Character work is solid, with development throughout the book. The development of a love triangle seemed a little sudden and contrived, largely because the third in the triangle, Dama, is not given enough time and attention in his development and entanglement. The politics of the royal family could have been developed more, but this omission could have been intended to obscure the identity of the villain. Revealed at the close of Romanitas, the villain may plot in full view of the reader in future installments.

Romanitas has such a solid base of world-building and character work, I wondered why I wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as I am about, say, A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin or Undivided by Jennifer Fallon. The difference lies in the prose and the detail. I prefer ambiguous characters and grittier stories. When we should be getting up close and personal with McDougall’s characters in their grief, the scars they bear from abuse and so forth, the prose slips into a more formal or distant style of writing that left me feeling somewhat removed from the characters. I want to feel their hopes, joys and pain vicariously.

Overall, this is a good novel from an author with great potential. Recommended to fantasy and especially alternate world fans.

Previously published in Dark Matter issue 4, July 2011, blog post predated to reflect the original publication date.