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Caecilia is a young Roman woman, the daughter of a rich plebeian who married into the aristocracy in the hope of a political advancement which never came and Caecilia is regarded as a half-caste child being neither one thing nor the other. Unusually for a Roman maiden, her father teaches her to read and write but even those skills won't save her from the fate of all young Roman women ... marriage.
This novel is set in the very early days of the Roman Empire, before the first Punic Wars and long before the days of Julius Caesar and Pompey. This is a time when Rome was little more than a city state surrounded by enemies on all sides and when it seemed to be perpetually at war with its neighbours.
I really knew almost nothing about this period of history and absolutely nothing at the Etruscans before beginning this novel and though I can't vouch for the authenticity of the facts contained in the story, the author certainly writes as though she knows a great deal about both early Rome and the Etruscans. It prompted me to do a little online research of my own and in fact, very little is known about the Etruscans at all other than that they lived in the area of Italy which roughly equates to modern day Tuscany. Their origins are shrouded in mystery but it's belieed the Etruscans originated from somewhere in Asia Minor. Most of the information about the Etruscans comes from Roman texts so I'm guessing it should be taken with quite a hefty pinch of salt, given that Ancient Rome was pretty good at bigging itself up!
I wasn't really expecting much from this story as it was one being offered as a freebie on Amazon and Elizabeth Storr is an author whose work I haven't come across before. I was agreeably surprised to discover that the book was enjoyable, informative and nowhere near as badly written as I'd expected.
Caecilia makes a very credible leading protagonist though I did find it quite disconcerting that initially the heroine was referred to as Cilla from time to time as I immediately pictured her with improbably red hair telling all and sundry they'd be having 'a lorra lorra laughs.' She's feisty enough to not be boring, however, and the author doesn't fall into the trap of giving her a modern-day attitude. Caecilia had been hoping to marry a young Roman, Drusus, but the poor girl soon discovers that her uncle and aunt, though happy enough with Caecilia's wealth, are keen to rid themselves of the burden of care and sacrifice her happiness for the sake of Rome. Of course, she doesn't have a say in her own future, which is how she finds herself being married off to a man many years older than she and one of Rome's enemies to boot, an Etruscan named Vel Mastarna. So she finds herself given in matrimony to this rich and powerful citizen of the Etruscan city of Veii and beginning a new life. She may only be moving a short distance of 12 miles away from Rome but it's a million miles from anything she's previously experienced.
Truth to tell, Caecilia is a bit of a whinger, at least to begin with. She's forever going on about glorious Rome, a city which hasn't exactly done her any favours by shipping her off to marry a foreigner. Early Rome wasn't the debauched society of blood and circuses that it became under the Emperors but was much more stern and austere. Once she arrives in Veii, she discovers that Etruscan women are regarded much more as equals and Etruria is a place of music, art and a far more relaxed attitude to life and has a very liberal attitude towards sexuality. She finds herself torn between her strict Roman upbringing and the seduction of this more liberated life. As war between the two states looms nearer, Caecilia not only achieves a new maturity but also has to decide whether her loyalties lie with Rome or Etruria.
I actually liked Mastarna much more than I did Caecilia. He, too, isn't exactly an eager bridegroom in the beginning but he's willing to make the best of the situation and he's the voice of sweet reason in the face of Caecilia's rank prejudice against anyone who isn't Roman. Rome is in the grip of a famine and this marriage with the Etruscan has been brokered as a means of not only ensuring an uneasy peace with its neighbour but in acquiring much needed corn to feed its citizens. We get a double perspective of Etruscan society, both through Mastarna and the newly arrived Caecilia, viewing its differences with Rome, its strengths and its vulnerabilities. In a like-for-like comparison, I think I'd have opted for being an Etruscan despite its eventual fate. Sadly, despite pre-dating Rome, the might of those violently acquisitive people prevailed and the Etruscans disappeared from the face of the earth.
Neither Caecilia nor Mastarna are perfect, either in terms of their looks or their personalities, which made them both far more believable than if they'd been described as stunningly beautiful or they always behave impeccably.
Just like its main protagonists, this book isn't perfect by any means. The storytelling is a little clunky in parts and at times the writing style is also rather didactic and I felt that I was in a history lesson, but it's hard to see how the author could get the information across in a less instructional way. There's no denying the subject matter is very interesting or at least I found it so and it's a period of history which is generally ignored in historical fiction. The book gets better and better as it progresses and by the time I'd reached the end, I felt totally involved in both Caecilia and Mastarna's lives and it's certainly made me want to find out more about the mysterious and free-loving Etruscans.
The book is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle format. As it's an Australian import the paperback is a rather pricey £10.80 but the Kindle version is a much more reasonable £2.72.