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Mistress of Rome tells the story of Thea, a slave girl. We first meet her as the assistant to Lepida, the teenage daughter of a wealthy member of Ancient Roman aristocracy. The two peers have an uneasy relationship, not least because of the beguiling Lepida's growing malice and realisation of the power that she wields because of her beauty and her position.
The two girls meet Arius, a reluctant, brutal and highly successful enslaved gladiator, the biggest gladiator of that time - who is seen by the vast majority of Rome with awe, but also with anticipation at which fight he may be killed. Both develop an attraction for him, but it is Thea who is successful and soon begins an illicit relationship with him. Once Lepida finds this out, Thea is exiled, supposedly never to see her gladiator lover (with whose child she is now pregnant.)
We next meet Thea again as an adult, leading as close as a pleasant as life as it is possible to have in these circumstances, working for a wealthy man as a singer named Athena with growing popularity and success and bringing up her young son who displays traits of the wildness of his father despite neither father or son knowing of their connection to each other.
Thea soon finds herself back in the higher echelons of Ancient Roman society when the Emperor Domitian expresses an interest and brutally puts actions in place so he can have her for himself. This once again puts Thea in direct contact of Lepida, who by now also has her own power - married to an influential man but sleeping her way around the rich and powerful of Roman society.
In the brutality of Ancient Rome, the Emperor strongly begins to suspect the motives of all around him, putting Thea, her son and Arius in even more mortal danger if they are ever to find happiness as a family.
I was not expecting much from this book to be honest, but found it surprisingly entertaining. It is quite a long book at over 500 pages but the content is so straightforward and largely lightweight that you can zip through it quite quickly to be honest, as long as you can keep a grip of the names of the many people that are referenced throughout the story.
Its tone is very much that of extremes. It revels in the violence, both of the gladiator arena and the palaces of the rich and influential. It is also quite sexually charged and explicit in places, particularly in regards to Lepida who uses her body as her weapon.
This does not pretend to have illusions or indeed be epic despite the timescales. Most of the action takes place through explanatory dialogue rather than letting the surroundings or subtleties tell the story. It reminded me a lot in tone of the Bravo series Spartacus: Blood and Sand (which I do not recommend) in that it revels in its graphic nature and the story is just something that holds these scenes of extremities together.
The dialogue is clunky and downright embarrassing in some places as it mixes modern slang terms such as 'whoa!' into it. This is incredibly misjudged, and whilst I certainly wouldn't expect that it would be written wholly authentically - these anachronisms do stand out like a sore thumb.
Despite all of these reservations however, I do have to admit that I did enjoy reading it. Yes it is relatively lightweight but it paints Thea and Arius as engaging enough to make you care what happens to them enough to want to finish the book. The author also manages to ramp up enough tension through the random and brutal acts of violence that are portrayed to make it quite shocking and unpredictable in places. In particular, the sense of unease and underlying fears of betrayal that the characters feel comes across really well and you do get a feeling that no-one is really safe.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a realistic depiction of Ancient Roman life, this probably is not for you. However, if you would not mind a 'rip-roaring ' yarn which will keep you entertained without really troubling your brain too much - you could do a lot worse than to give this novel a go!