Saturday, November 17, 2007

BOOK: Sophia McDougall, "Rome Burning"

Sophia McDougall: Rome Burning. London: Orion, 2007. 9780752860794. xviii + 472 pp.


This is a sequel to Romanitas, an alternative-history novel set in the present time but in a world in which the Roman Empire never collapsed but instead occupied approx. half of the world. (See also my post about Romanitas, which I read last year.)

I enjoyed reading Romanitas a lot, but I liked Rome Burning even better. Just like with Romanitas last year, I was staying awake later than usual because I couldn't put the book down.

Comparison with Romanitas

According to a note on p. vi, this is the second of three books set in this alternative-history timeline; the third one is planned to be published next year. Well, one question that often interests me when it comes to trilogies is how well their individual parts stand on their own, i.e. if you consider them as individual works rather than as parts of a trilogy. Romaintas did just fine in this respect: it didn't assume that the reader has any prior knowledge of the alternative-history world in which the story takes place (which is of course natural as this was the first book in the series), and it provided a reasonable ending of the story so that the reader doesn't feel that the story is incomplete (although you could see that things have been set up so that the story could conveniently continue in the sequels). In contrast to that, Rome Burning is in my opinion not so suitable for being read as an individual work; it would be better to read Romanitas first. It's true that you get, here and there, brief explanatory passages of information that you already remember from Romanitas (if you have read it) and that could therefore in principle be helpful to a reader that hasn't read Romanitas yet; but I doubt that these passages would be enough to make such a reader really comfortable. They are OK to refresh your memory if you have read Romanitas a year or two ago and have forgotten the details, but a newcomer to the series would do best to start with Romanitas rather than jumping ahead and reading Rome Burning first.

The other thing is about the ending of the story; in Romanitas, as I said above, there was a normal enough end of the story; but here in Rome Burning the end is very abrupt and doesn't give you a sense of closure at all. In Romanitas you could see just that the story *could* conveniently continue, while in Rome Burning you see that it absolutely *must* continue, otherwise you will be left quite frustrated. Indeed the end here in Rome Burning is very dramatic; it reminded me of what I heard was a widespread practice in some TV series that span multiple seasons: at the end of the season, in the last episode, they gather most of the characters in one place and set up a big explosion or some other kind of disaster just at the end of the episode. That way any of the characters could either survive or die, and both of these possibilities would seem equally plausible. The purpose of all this is to prevent the actors for demanding higher salaries when they are negotiating for the next season: the producers can conveniently sack any actor who gets too demanding, since his character's absence from the next season will be easily explained to the audience by saying that he died in the disaster at the end of the preceding season. This practice strikes me as horribly cruel, cheap and sleazy. In a novel, it is not so objectionable since no real people are suffering because of it, but still it strikes me as a somewhat cheap way of building suspense. The end of Rome Burning looks like a classic example of what I have just described. It isn't clear to me whether the members of the Imperial family were evacuated from their box in time or not, or if the explosion did affect them, which ones would survive and which ones won't; and even Dama could, with a bit of effort, be made to survive his fall from the roof of the Colosseum. Anyway, this doesn't really bother me much by itself; what annoys me more is that the ending is so incomplete that I can really hardly wait for the third part of the series, to be published next year. I suppose this is just what the publishers want, of course, but I'm not entirely happy about it :)

There are several other aspects in which I felt that this book was an improvement on Romanitas. Una's paranormal abilities (about which I have already grumbled in my post about Romanitas last year) aren't so prominent here in Rome Burning, and aren't so crassly employed to create more suspenseful situations. I think this is a very nice improvement. Another thing I liked about Rome Burning is that the story moves through a wider range of locations. A considerable part of it even takes place outside the Roman Empire, mostly in China, and one brief scene in Japan. We also observe Marcus' train journey through the Sarmatian steppes, and towards the end of the novel there's a chapter that is set on some remote island in the Hebrides.

The story

<spoiler warning> Here's a short summary of the story. It is three years after the events of Romanitas; the old emperor Faustus is temporarily incapacitated by a stroke and Marcus, his nephew, takes up the position of regent. Marcus' cousin Drusus, who has already been one of the leading villains in Romanitas, comes out of the woodwork and starts scheming how to overthrow him. Drusus is especially annoyed by Marcus' relative humanity and pacifism; for example, Marcus is doing his best to avoid the outbreak of war with the Nionian empire (i.e. Japan; the two empires have a common border in North America, and are on the brink of war due to the recent incidents there); he has also proposed the abolition of crucifiction, and has manumitted all the slaves in the Imperial palace. There seems to be no doubt that he would abolish slavery altogether when/if Faustus dies and Marcus inherits his position. One very important source of support and encouragement to Marcus is his girlfriend Una; Drusus, noticing that, attempts to kill her in a few splendid scenes that made me hold my breath with excitement. Fortunately, he fails and ends up in prison, awaiting trial. Marcus travels to China, where he will negotiate with representatives of the Nionian empire and try to restore peaceful relations between the two superpowers. Meanwhile Drusus persuades a general Salvius, the commander of the Roman army, to release him from prison and take him to the emperor; the still-ailing and bedridden old man is partly convinced, partly bullied into agreeing with them that Marcus' policies are misguided and will dangerously weaken the Roman empire. Drusus travels to China, surprising Marcus there with the emperor's order commanding him to return to Rome. A sudden explosion kills one of the leading Nionian representatives. Marcus takes advantage of the confusion to hastily hand Una and his advisor Varius over to the Nionians as hostages, partly to reassure Nionia that the Romans had nothing to do with this assasination but partly, and more importantly, to prevent Una and Varius from getting into Drusus' hands. Despite Drusus' efforts to delay his journey, Marcus eventually returns to Rome, talks to the emperor who, by now somewhat confused and tired by all this, insists that Marcus and Drusus must now share the regency. Marcus returns to China, which is a clear sign that Drusus' coup has not been quite successful and people's loyalties shift into Marcus' favour again; Drusus' position is quite weak for the remainder of the novel. The negotiations with Nionia continue and are eventually brought to a happy conclusion, involving a detente, perhaps even a condominium, in North America. But this comes at a huge personal cost to Marcus: he ends up having to marry Noriko, the Nionian emperor's daughter. Although they treat each other kindly enough, it is clear that neither of them is happy with this dynastic marriage. Una, not wishing to be a concubine, leaves Marcus and is also supremely miserable. Meanwhile it turns out that the incidents along the Roman-Nionian border, as well as several other acts of terrorism, are due to the activities of an organization set up by Dama, a former slave who helped Marcus and Una so much during the events described in Romanitas but was gone without a trace at the end of that novel. Dama is hoping to provoke a world war which would bring about the collapse of the three big empires (Rome, Nionia, China) and a more just world, free of slavery, would presumably be able to rise from their ashes. In the very last few pages of the novel, he carries out a suicide bombing in the Colloseum, hoping to include the emperor, as well as Marcus and the rest of the imperial family, among the victims. </spoiler warning>

Character development

There are a lot more psychological and emotional things going on in this novel than there were in Romanitas, which I think is another improvement. I often found myself wondering how I would react in this or that situation, although I usually found that I lack the life experience necessary to really imagine how I would react. The saddest part of the story is undoubtedly when Marcus has to get married to Noriko for dynastic reasons, and Una leaves him. All three of them are clearly so miserable that I was damned close to weeping once or twice myself, and I certainly felt even more gloomy than usual for a couple of days.

Another thing that was rather sad to see was how Marcus has grown somewhat harsher due to his struggle against Drusus; see esp. pp. 335 and 348–52. In this latter passage, Marcus beats up Drusus in quite a gruesome way; it's interesting how much the impression these things leave on one depends on how they are presented. I remember the movie 300, with lots of gruesome swordfighting scenes and blood spurting by the bucketful, and it was all so hilariously funny that I just laughed. But here in the fight between Marcus and Drusus, it was described in such a way that I couldn't help feeling rather aghast, cringing and thinking ‘oh dear, how horrible’ — a reaction similar to what I would probably feel if I saw such a thing in real life.

One thing that stands the author in very good stead in that scene is her medical or, should I say, physiological bent: “he felt a rubbery crunch of bone under his knuckles, which came away wet [. . .] pain inflated densely into the hollows of his skull [. . .] Drusus gulped in a bubbling red breath” (pp. 348, 350). This sort of focus on low-level physiological details also appears in many other passages both here and in Romanitas (where probably the best example is the description of how a crucifiction works at the beginning of ch. 3); in many instances it felt to me more like an annoyance than something that improves the style, but here in this scene it works very well. You can really see very clearly how Marcus is little by little beating the very life out of poor Drusus, and how he really would have killed him if Varius hadn't stopped him in time. And you can see that it's not so easy to kill a person, and that it's very gruesome; a welcome reminder nowadays that death by violence is so commonplace and boring, both in the movies and in the news. Also, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Drusus at that time (which I think is a good thing), even though he had done some very bad things up until that point.

The alt-history world of the book

Some new things that we learn in this novel about the alternative-history world in which it takes place:

  • there's a tunnel underneath the Otranto strait (p. 39);

  • the last lions and tigers were killed three hundred years ago; gladiatorial games still exist, and gladiators now fight against polar bears and sharks (p. 40). Fighting “the beasts in the arena” is also a possible military punishment (p. 259);

  • I already mentioned in my post about Romanitas that mobile phones are clearly not known, and there are several passages here in Rome Burning that confirm it. Many problems could be avoided if the characters were able to communicate simply, directly and immediately via mobile phones. Drusus' intrigue on pp. 145–8, where he lures Una into an out-of-the-way office so that she can use the phone, would be impossible. Etc.

  • Another thing that I already noted last year is the absence of airplanes. Now Marcus is flown from Greece to Rome in a helicopter on p. 22, but when he has to travel home from China he goes by magnetway (p. 172). The magnet trains, incidentally, travel at 300 mph (pp. 273–4) and the “Silk Road magnetway” across central Asia consists of ten parallel tracks (p. 274).

  • It would seem that Rome, China and Nionia don't exactly have a well-established tradition of diplomatic relations, otherwise they wouldn't be getting into the hilarious protocolary complications that are described on pp. 174–7.

  • The current Chinese emperor is just a figurehead and the country is really ruled by his mother, the empress dowager. I guess that this was inspired by the real-world empress Tzu Hsi, who ruled China on the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • The Chinese and the Nionians eat with sticks, just like in real life; Romans use spoons and knives (p. 178; forks aren't mentioned). And: “Often the Romans laid down their spoons to scoop up their food with their fingers, as was normal in the Empire.” (Ibid.)

  • A Nionian general is developing a mysterious weapon of great power: “ ‘ [. . .] we would strike with a force like an invisible hammer, a hammer to level armies and cities two hundred miles away. In the near future, explosives will be virtually obsolete! [. . .] ’ ” (P. 183; and Romans will try to learn more about it and develop something similar of their own, pp. 317–8.) I guess that in the third novel we'll find out what exactly this is. Of course one's first thought is an atomic bomb, but that doesn't work “two hundred miles away”. Rockets perhaps? But that are still explosives. Maybe something altogether more exotic is intended [the HAARP project comes to mind :)].

  • Tea is known in Rome but not widely used (p. 184).

  • There is an interesting passage on the use of cars in Rome and China on p. 258. “Romans liked to travel in belligerent, implacable-looking behemoths, spacious within and seemingly capable of bulldozing over anything outside.”

  • There aren't any TVs in the remote parts of China, and even phones are rare and extremely expensive (p. 284).


On p. 66 there's a passage that says about Sulien's memories of some of the events three years ago that although he rarely remembered them now, “they were there, like radioactivity in the bone marrow”. This struck me as very incongruous — there is otherwise no sign in this book that the world in which the story takes place is familiar with radioactivity.

Grumbling corner: I have a complaint about the ink used in the book. As often, I used a white piece of paper as a bookmark and also to slide it down the page as I read, to guide the eyes and make reading a little faster. Well, by the time I finished the book, the formerly white piece of paper was more gray than white, and quite greasy with all the ink it had picked up from the pages along which it had moved. What sort of vile, filthy muck did the printers use for ink? Is there any cost-cutting method that these greedy publishers will hesitate to adopt? I shudder to think what this book will look like in a few decades' time. Grrr.


This is an excellent and delightful book, even better than its predecessor. I heartily recommend both of them to anyone who is interested in this type of alternative-history novel, and I can hardly wait to read the third volume in the series (to be published in October 2008, according to amazon).

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