Okay, Historical Fiction lovers. I have the best news you’re going to hear for all of February. Possibly all of 2016. I kid you not. So prepare yourselves, because here it comes…
Phyllis T. Smith has written another book. *squeal* I know, right?! And honestly, this is the most excited I have been about a novel in a pretty long time. Allow me to explain.
First, the book is set in Rome, during the time of Caesar Augustus. I’m swooning already. What Phyllis T. Smith does with this time period, however, is bring it alive. For those of you who fell asleep during this portion in History class, let me bring you up to speed. Most people are familiar with who Julius Caesar was, as well as his untimely end at the hands of members of the Senate. As he did not have a living heir of his own, he adopted his great-nephew; Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, ultimately known as Caesar Augustus. Augustus was husband to Livia Drusilla, father to Julia and had charge over Cleopatra Selene (the daughter of Marc Antony and the ever-famous Cleopatra.) If you ask around about the history of these people, you’ll hear some pretty common themes. Livia poisoned Augustus. Julia was exiled by her father because of her promiscuity. Cleopatra Selene tried to overthrow Augustus. However, the author actually did her homework, which is why this book is crazy cool. There’s not a lot of history to back up most of these claims. So the author takes what she has learned, what she knows, what she suspects, and turns it into a brilliant novel.
The book switches between the three female characters mentioned above. We see life through the eyes of Livia, intensely devoted to her husband, with strength and strategy running through every bone in her body. We see life through the eyes of Julia, spoiled child who feels that she is a pawn to be tossed around at her father’s will, for the good of Rome. And we see life through the eyes of Cleopatra Selene, orphan at the hands of Augustus, her own life spared, living under the ever-watchful eyes of her parents’ enemies.
As the book progressed, I found myself drawn to Livia. The strength that she had to possess to balance all that she balanced, to suffer all that she suffered, to support her husband, the First Citizen of Rome, all while running things smoothly behind-the-scenes. You come to realize as the story progresses, that much of Caesar Augustus’ success was owed in part to his wife Livia. I enjoyed reading about her, and found myself wanting to research more about her and her life. (Which is lucky for me, as Phyllis T. Smith’s first book is about her! You can find it here.) She was flawed, imperfect, prideful, passionate and human. The author maintains the belief that Livia was not responsible for the death of Augustus, the belief of which I lean towards as well. So it was refreshing to see Livia portrayed in a positive light. (The author also allows us a glimpse into the thoughts of Augustus, which I really enjoyed.)
I enjoyed reading about Cleopatra Selene, and seeing her journey to Queen of Mauretania. I cannot imagine living in the home of the man who murdered my father, nor having to show myself devoted to him. She must have been a pretty amazing woman. I would tell you my favorite part about her, but that would be a pretty big spoiler. I’ll let you discover it on your own.
But lastly, Julia. I loathed this character! I didn’t start out that way. I actually rather enjoyed getting to know her. At first. I even felt sorry for her, at times. But then…oh, but then. She was so spoiled, so whiny, so entitled. Yes, one can say that she had reason to complain, beings that her marriages were arranged by her father for political reasons. But her father gave her everything her heart could desire. She wanted for nothing, her children wanted for nothing. However, she was a brat. Sorry, not sorry. By the end of the book, you’ll be throwing a party at what befalls dear Julia. (If you have a different reaction to her, I’d love to hear it!)
So! Bottom line, my dear fellow bookworms: You’ll forget that Netflix even exists once you dive into this incredible book.
**Thank you to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for the honor and opportunity to review this book in exchange for an honest review.