Rome Burning by Sophia McDougal — book review

Rome Burning by Sophia McDougal. Gollancz ‘8.99.

Reviewed by Jim Steel

This is the second book of the Romanitas trilogy and it has been revised since it was first published in 2007. I’ve no idea how much it has been changed but, supernatural elements aside, this version is a much better alternate-history novel than most of the straight what-if stuff on the shelves.

Philp K. Dick claimed that the Empire never ended and to some extent he was right. The state religion of the Roman Empire still holds sway over large parts of our world, and the trappings of imperial eagles and Kaisers are familiar enough. McDougal’s trilogy is set in a present-day world where the Roman Empire still exists and its only serious rivals are Japan and China. It is a world that is very familiar for lots of reasons although, being a slave economy, it lags around fifty years behind us technologically.

The Emperor is very ill and his nephew, Marcus, temporarily becomes Caesar. He’s aided by his telepathic lover, ex-slave Una, and opposed by his deranged cousin, Drusus. Japan has tested a nuclear weapon and war beckons over American incidents. Realpolitik threatens relationships and the slave problem is becoming a crisis.

It’s a violent novel for a violent civilisation, although the upper levels of Roman society do seem curiously lacking in large characters.

The middle part of this middle book sags when events move to China and missing characters from volume one reappear, but the story picks itself up again and pushes onward to a cliff-hanger climax. McDougal successfully uses an unusual floating viewpoint that is hard to pull off (but makes the telepathic fugues effective), and she is extremely good at inhabiting her characters. Even Drusus has aspects that we can recognize in ourselves.

Rome Burning by Sophia McDougal. Gollancz ‘8.99.

Reviewed by Jim Steel

This is the second book of the Romanitas trilogy and it has been revised since it was first published in 2007. I’ve no idea how much it has been changed but, supernatural elements aside, this version is a much better alternate-history novel than most of the straight what-if stuff on the shelves.

Philp K. Dick claimed that the Empire never ended and to some extent he was right. The state religion of the Roman Empire still holds sway over large parts of our world, and the trappings of imperial eagles and Kaisers are familiar enough. McDougal’s trilogy is set in a present-day world where the Roman Empire still exists and its only serious rivals are Japan and China. It is a world that is very familiar for lots of reasons although, being a slave economy, it lags around fifty years behind us technologically.

The Emperor is very ill and his nephew, Marcus, temporarily becomes Caesar. He’s aided by his telepathic lover, ex-slave Una, and opposed by his deranged cousin, Drusus. Japan has tested a nuclear weapon and war beckons over American incidents. Realpolitik threatens relationships and the slave problem is becoming a crisis.

It’s a violent novel for a violent civilisation, although the upper levels of Roman society do seem curiously lacking in large characters.

The middle part of this middle book sags when events move to China and missing characters from volume one reappear, but the story picks itself up again and pushes onward to a cliff-hanger climax. McDougal successfully uses an unusual floating viewpoint that is hard to pull off (but makes the telepathic fugues effective), and she is extremely good at inhabiting her characters. Even Drusus has aspects that we can recognize in ourselves.