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Review: Mistress of Rome, by Kate Quinn

Original date of publication: 2010
My edition: 2010 (Berkley)
Why I decided to read: the publisher offered me a review copy:
How I acquired m copy: ditto, March 2010

Mistress of Rome is a story that’s focused on three characters: Thea, a Jewish slave; her mistress, Lepida Polllia; and Arius, a Briton gladiator. These characters live and interact with one another in late first-century Rome, during the reign of Emperor Domitian. Quinn describes in vivid detail (sometimes too vivid!) the brutality of Rome, as well as, maybe, its softer side.

The book is pretty well researched, and the author has a good feel for description. However, there were a lot of things I didn’t like about this book: namely, the switch between first and third person narration, as other reviewers have mentioned. It wouldn’t bother me so much except for the fact that the switch between the tenses would sometimes occur in the middle of chapters, with only a break between paragraphs to make the transition. It didn’t really work for me.


There are also some problems with the plot. Although I felt that the book moved at a fast pace, and the book was compelling enough to keep me reading, there were some plot holes. For example, since Thea could see the resemblance between Arius and Vix, why didn’t the two of them realize the connection? Why didn’t anyone else find out? If Domitian had such a great spy network, and knew so much about her relationship with Arius, why didn’t he know about Vix? Or about her childhood? It just didn’t add up. I also didn’t quite buy that fact that Thea and Lepida would suddenly fall in love/lust with the gladiator, with little to no contact with him beforehand. There are also a number of highly unlikely coincidences, in which the main characters are constantly running into one another by accident. Add to that a completely unlikely and improbably plot twist about ¾ of the way through, and I found myself scratching my head at times as I read.

I also had problems with some of the characters. I think the problem lies in the fact that they’re either way to good or way to bad—there’s no in the middle with anyone of them. As a result, good characters such as Thea became tiresome after a while, as did really bad characters such as Lepida. There’s very little to no character development with any of the main or lesser characters; in fact, Lepida’s “voice” at age 14 is more or less the same as when she’s in her 20s! It wasn’t believable to me.

However, I think the author’s writing style is very good, and the historical bits are very good (apart from a nitpicking thing where she doesn’t use the proper Latin plural forms for certain nouns such as stola; and the author selectively uses Latin names for places such as Brittania and Gaul, but not for, say, Spain). Kate Quinn shows a lot of promise as an author; I just didn’t love her first novel.


Daphne said…
I read this last week and although the switching between first and third person itself didn't bother me, in some cases the transition wasn't handled very well. I really loved Lepida as a "baddie" though.
Clare said…
I hate it when characters do things for no other reason than that the plot dictates it- it really deals a fatal blow to the realism of the work.

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