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Book Review: Lady of the Eternal City

By (March 2, 2015) No Comment

Keeping Up with the Romanslady of the eternal city cover

Lady of the Eternal City

by Kate Quinn

Berkley, 2015

The fourth and latest of Kate Quinn’s rumblingly entertaining “Empress of Rome” novels, Lady of the Eternal City, centers on the lady Sabina, the wife of the emperor Hadrian (she’s presumably the auburn-haired beauty on the book’s US cover, and really, who wouldn’t want to be?) and her ultra-masculine erstwhile lover Vix, Vercingetorix the Red, “a man made to harvest the souls of Rome’s enemies.” Vix and Sabina have both moved on – he to the lovely and gentle Mirah, who hasn’t succeeded in gentling him:

I looked like the man who had killed a rebel king in Dacia, who had clawed his way red-handed from legionary to aquilifer to centurion to tribune to legate. I looked like a man to be feared.

Acting as seismic disruptors to both Sabina and Vix’s lives is the star couple of the Antonine era, Hadrian and his handsome young teenage lover Antious, who just happens to be Vix’s son. The center of the Roman world is of course the emperor himself, who makes a swaggering figure in Quinn’s telling:

He cut a splendid image, I won’t deny that. Broad-shouldered, tall, siting his big stallion like a centaur, red leather reins doubled through his tanned fist. Bearded like a Greek, in disdain for the long tradition this city had for shorn chins … Hadrian’s head was bare, the morning breeze stirring his curls, an though that massive handsome head was bowed with a humility designed to please the crowd.

Readers of Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 novel Memoirs of Hadrian might be expecting the relationship between Hadrian and his teenage lover to be tortured and tragic, but Yourcenar wrote her surreal novel at a time when homosexuality was illegal in France and the present state of gay rights in the civilized world was all but unthinkable even for the most optimistic. Generally speaking, things are very different today, and these differences are reflected in the interplay of Quinn’s lovers:

Then the Emperor rose to take Antinous in his arms for a long kiss. Antinous had the same sensation of floating that he’d first felt in a lemon grove in Greece. He raised a hand to the Emperor’s face as they kissed, touching the furrow traced almost permanently between those heavy brows, and Hadrian dissolved into laughter against his mouth because it was a joke between them by now – Antinous’s way of telling him to cease working and for the love of all the gods don’t think so hard. “That’s better,” Antinous murmured against Hadrian’s lips, feeling the furrow disappear under his fingers.

Quinn’s plots are simple, one-dimensional things, and she wastes no time with period-sounding dialogue or character conceptions: Hadrian and Antinous canoodle indistinguishably from any couple on the sidewalks of Chelsea (although the contortion necessary to trace the furrow in somebody’s brow while simultaneously kissing him on the mouth is best attempted by readers only in the privacy of their own villas), and all her characters react in very 21st century ways to the MacGuffin she sets in motion in the book’s second half. What she sacrifices in verisimilitude she regains in readability (a bargain that ought to be easy but that is often beyond the reach of lazy historical novelists), and all the “Empress of Rome” novels are effortlessly readable. Fans of Roman historical fiction won’t be particularly challenged by Lady of the Eternal City, but they won’t be disappointed by it either.