Kate Quinn knows how to serve up a full-flavored Rome with plenty of spice. Empress of the Seven Hills is the third of her books (Mistress of Rome and Daughters of Rome), although you can get by without reading them in order. They are all page-turners, lots of fun.
As usual with Kate Quinn’s books, Empress is driven along by fully-developed characters. Her main heroine, Sabina, starts out interesting and keeps developing and growing. Quinn has a way of granting her central female characters the fate they work very hard to get, but then aren’t the least sure they want once they gain it. Some of the book’s characters are deliciously wicked, several decidedly lusty. She depicts intelligence with depth and perception. Her smart people aren’t always likeable or good, but you admire their brains. The characters we like, and there are several, keep us rooting for them with increasing fervor, and sometimes things come out as we wish. As with her other books, Empress is full of juicy relationships, both offbeat and more conventional. You won’t be able to predict the paths of this cast. They kept surprising me.
Quinn is an excellent writer of dialogue. You get an intimate feel for her characters through their words. Vix, a physically commanding legionary soldier with an explosive temper, uses short, muscular expressions. Hadrian, who starts out a fairly likeable man but who increasingly reveals a cold stiffness, uses long, pompous sentences even in the middle of a military camp. Quinn chooses a contemporary idiom including the expletives you hear in 21st century America, but it works well. Quinn’s dialogue never yanks me out of the past or jars me as inappropriate. I stay right there inside her characters in ancient Rome. Many of the concerns and themes prevalent in ancient Rome are still with us in contemporary America, which may partially explain why the modern idiom feels right to me: political cynicism about corruption especially financial, contradictory sexual mores, the scorn one faction has for the “elitist intellectuals,” and the breakdown of family and other social structures, or at least the perceived breakdown.
Quinn fudges a bit with some history—most particularly with Titus’s role—but she owns up to everything in her author’s note and explains the changes. They are integral to her tale. She’s great on the details of life—what a legionary ate while on the march and a quick look at how he cooked it, for example. Her knowledge of the period is plenty deep enough that she avoids the failing of a lot of historical fiction writers when they drag out the same details over and over for lack of knowing any others. She added to my store of interesting facts and, more importantly, she builds a persuasive world. You’ll be there.
Daughters of Rome excelled at portraying the Rome of women. This book does that to some extent also, but much of the time it steps into the world of men. Sabina’s interest in seeing the world takes her far from the safe atrium of her father’s home, and she certainly doesn’t like hanging out with her mother-in-law. This gives new territory for Quinn’s talent.