THIS IS THE ROMAN EMPIRE. NOW.
(Romanitas Trilogy, Book 1)
Genre: Alternate History, Fantasy, Young Adult
Format: Paperback, 608 Pages
Date: 24th February 2011
It is the 21st century. The Roman Empire has not declined and fallen. It endures. The greatest civilisation humanity has ever seen, holding sway over two thirds of the world. And while the citizens of the empire mourn the untimely deaths of the emperor and his wife, three young teenagers unwittingly find themselves embroiled in a deadly conspiracy emanating from the highest levels of Rome. As the hand of fate brings the trio together, can they survive impossible odds long enough to thwart the machinations that threatens the security of the world’s foremost military and political power?
Romanitas is built upon an enticing conceit, with endless story possibilities. The simple premise of a present-day Roman empire providing the backdrop for a tale of political intrigue cannot fail but to create elevated levels of expectation for readers who pick up the book. It’s unfortunate then that debut author, Sophia McDougall, chose to write a story for the Young Adult audience—a decision that regrettably prevents her novel from meeting those expectations. While it might be argued there’s no reason why writing for YA readers should be detrimental to a story like this, it’s certainly the case here that an adult oriented tale would have made for a far better book.
Though fans may dispute this, one of the hallmarks of YA speculative fiction is the lack of depth, particularly in terms of world building and characterisation. This proves to be a fatal flaw for Romanitas. It’s hard not to be disappointed that the depiction of such an intriguing setting is so shallow, ill-conceived, and ultimately not believable. For a tale that posits the Roman empire in the 21st century, covering two thirds of the world, McDougall does little to paint a plausible picture of what the empire looks like or how it came to evolve in such a way. Readers are never shown a world that feels definitively Roman; the story could be taking place in any generic alternate reality Europe. Given that the book’s principal appeal is on account of its setting, these failings are hard to overlook.
But Romanitas’ weaknesses don’t end with just its unconvincing world building—characterisation is likewise a notable weakness. As is to be expected of a YA book, the three central characters are teenagers, which proves to be to the detriment of the story. Una and Sulien, are siblings separated since childhood, living as slaves in the city of London, while Marcus Novius Faustus Leo, is a young Roman prince and heir to the Imperial throne. The decision to make them teenagers feels counter-intuitive given the nature of the plot, and though teenage leads aren’t inherently a negative, in this instance it only serves to make the story more implausible: the trio are just a little too capable of navigating the obstacles they have to overcome. That being said, given how bland and poorly depicted they frequently are as individuals, it’s doubtful if ageing them by a decade or so would have made them any more compelling to read.
Despite its flaws, Romanitas does have its moments. There are a number of excellent, well written scenes during the early chapters of the book that promise so much, notably Una’s discovery that her brother, Sulien, is to be crucified on the banks of the River Thames for a rape that didn’t happen, spurring her to embark upon a daring rescue mission to free him from the prison-ship he’s being detained on before it’s too late. But such scenes are invariably diminished by a narrative that is incredibly predictable, telegraphing every twist and turn, as if to rob the reader of any surprises. It’s a shame that issues like this overshadow the intriguing plot at the heart of the story, because there is great potential here for a compelling alternate history novel, but for McDougall’s narrative choices conspiring to prevent Romanitas from maximising its undoubted promise.
One such narrative choice is the inclusion of jarringly out of place fantasy elements to an otherwise realistic narrative—a decision that will no doubt cause eyes to roll, and may even be a source of annoyance to some. Both Una and Sulien possess supernatural powers: Una can read minds, as well as cloud them, causing people to see things that aren’t there, or not see things that are; Sulien has healing powers that allow him to see inside people’s bodies and psychically repair the source of anyone’s injuries or ailments. Even if the author had taken the time to explain the origin of their powers, it’s hard to imagine how these abilities would not still be out of place.
McDougall is apparently also a playwright and poet, and this does shine through in her writing. Her beautiful prose is detailed, with a poetic quality that evokes vivid imagery, and is a pleasure to read. Unfortunately—proving the adage that a strength can sometimes be a weakness—instead of helping the narrative flow, the prose hinders the pacing by slowing down the story and failing to elicit any sense of tension or urgency to proceedings. As a consequence, what could have been a page-turning thriller is tarnished by large parts of the book that tend to drag and require extra effort to read through.
In summation, Romanitas is by no means a bad novel. Despite its flaws, it does eventually reach an exciting climax, one sufficient enough to persuade at least some readers to give the second instalment of the trilogy a chance. For others, though, it will be the end of the line, as they will surely lament the missed opportunity that Romanitas represents: a story with a premise that promises so much more than it delivers.