Rome Burning by Sophia McDougall

Rome BurningA review by Rebecca Muir

Rome Burning continues the story begun in Romanitas. The premise of the series is an interesting one: The Roman empire never fell, but has continued on until the present day, controlling half the world. Most of the other half of the world is controlled by the Nionian Empire (the Japanese), with Sina (or China) standing neutral between them.

In this book, the world is brought suddenly to the brink of war when a fragile treaty between the Romans and Nionians is broken. Meanwhile, a wave of fires is spreading across Rome – are they arson or the result of the heatwave afflicting Rome? In the midst of the chaos and impending destruction, the Emperor becomes ill and has to appoint a regent. The obvious choice is his nephew, Marcus. However, his other nephew Drusus, hungry for power and spurred on by a prophesy from the Oracle of Delphi, is determined to use this chance to discredit Marcus and remove him as an obstacle to Drusus’ ascension to the throne. Can Marcus steer the Empire through this difficult time and watch his own back at the same time? Can he prove Drusus’ complicity in the murder of his parents? Can he lead the Empire and still remain true to his own ideals? Can he discover who is trying to push Rome and Nionia into war?

Marcus is not alone through this – he finds allies, some expected and some unexpected. Will they be able to help him, or is he just leading them into danger? Marcus also has to deal with the issues that often go with leadership – the balancing of personal interests with the interests of his nation, his Empire.

The book explores themes of friendship and loyalty, forgiveness, responsibility and the corrupting influence of power or the hunger for it. Many of the characters have to make choices about how far they are willing to go, and what they are willing to do, to achieve what they want. Does the end always justify the means?

The portrayal of a modern Roman Empire is intriguing, although I couldn’t decide if it was clever or slightly far-fetched. The storyline is fast-paced and gripping, although I found the pace a little relentless – this is not a book to read when you want to relax. If you enjoy political thrillers with a difference, this book will appeal to you. A basic knowledge of Roman society and history will enhance your enjoyment of the book but is not essential. I would recommend finding Romanitas and reading that first, as much of Rome Burning draws on the material in the first book. I would also recommend ensuring you have access to the third book, Savage City, as Rome Burning finishes on a bit of a cliff-hanger.

Previously published in Dark Matter issue 5, September 2011.  This blog has been pre-dated to reflect the date of original publication.