by Jean Roberta
I sometimes claim that I would rather read slowly, for pleasure, instead of inhaling a book within a few hours, to meet a deadline. However, binge-reading is like binge-watching a favourite TV serial: it’s a way to become totally immersed in the author’s imaginary world.
To do justice to the two books I've read recently, I'll discuss each one in a separate post.
Games of Rome (Dominus: Book 2) by J.P. Kenwood (self-published?)
One of my recent reads is a blood-and-sandals epic, second volume in a series set in first-century Rome and surrounding area. (A handy map is provided.) I’m sure I would have understood things better if I had read Volume 1 first, but Volume 2 is fairly self-explanatory. It begins with the suspicious death of Lucius Petronius Celsus, which produces rage and grief in the central character, Gaius Fabius Rufus.
As the author explains in an introductory note, high-ranking men in that culture usually had three names: a first (personal) name, a family name, and a kind of nickname based on a personal characteristic. Gaius Fabius, a general, is called “Rufus” because he has red hair. Women, on the other hand, each have one name based on their father’s family name. For example, Lucius’ daughter is named Petronia. Gaius’ wife Marcia comes from the illustrious clan of the Marcii.
Our hero Gaius, the “Lucky Lion of the Fourth” (so-called because he has won several wars of conquest, and the lion is his family’s symbol) has more sex than any man you have ever met. How he finds time to win wars is a mystery.
Gaius has a stable of male slaves (literally – they live in the stables) who are mostly for pleasure but partly for work (e.g. milking the goats and serving at dinner), while his wife, Marcia, has her own collection of female slaves, all of whom are accessible to Gaius. One of them is pregnant with his child at the beginning of the novel, and this is important, because Gaius is in line to succeed to the throne after Emperor Trajan dies. In seven years of marriage, Marcia has not conceived a child, and the reader is led to suspect this is because 1) their marriage was not a love-match, and Gaius prefers sex with others, or 2) he simply has no time for Marcia, even though he finds her attractive. Gaius and Marcia have agreed to raise the child of Zoe the slave as their own. Marcia announces her supposedly fake pregnancy at a state dinner, which makes Gaius nervous (how can she maintain the charade for nine months?) until he realizes that she isn’t kidding.
While Gaius grieves over the death of his old friend-with-benefits, Lucius, and wonders how to find the real killer, he must grapple with his increasing attraction to a newly-acquired heathen slave, a captive of war from “Dacia,” the rugged region of the Carpathian Mountains. If Allerix the handsome youth turns out to be a prince of his tribe, Gaius must (by law) hand him over to the Emperor for a gruesome death in the arena. And what to do about Celtic-speaking Bryax, Lucius’ favourite pleasure-slave from Caledonia (known to us as Scotland), who almost died when Lucius’ spiteful widow had him castrated?
As you might have guessed by now, this series is an m/m erotic romance. The male bodies are lovingly described, often naked, sometimes hairy and sometimes oiled. Male characters, especially Gaius, constantly utter phrases such as “by Jupiter’s purple prick!”
Here is a scene from the fateful state banquet, where all the guests recline on couches to dine, and attendance by the nobility is mandatory:
“Would you care for rhinoceros, Commander Fabius?” the pretty palace slave asked as he offered the tray, batting his dark blond lashes.
Gaius shielded his nose with the back of his hand. “Get that vile flesh away from my face.”
“It’s surprisingly delicious, Gaius,” Marcia commented, before selecting another dark red, bitesized piece of meat from the pile carefully arranged high on a silver platter. “It tastes like ox, but a bit sweeter.”
As he studied his wife’s fetching profile, Gaius pursed his mouth in disgust while watching her chew the tough morsel. He waved his hand in front of his face and grumbled, “That might taste sweet, but it smells like ox shit. I am, however, pleased to see your appetite has returned with a vengeance.” Marcia wolfed down the gamey meat and snatched another warm slice of roasted rhino before the slave departed to serve Matidia, Marciana, and Pliny, who were lying on the next couch.
“Thanks to healing Hygeia!” Marcia exclaimed and popped the bite into her mouth. As she munched, she mumbled, “Thanks to all the gods for my quick recovery after that debacle at the amphitheater.”
[Spoiler: Marcia’s pregnancy is part of the reason she vomited after watching a young boy, a captive of war, being torn apart by dogs in the amphitheatre. I’m not pregnant, but I probably would have reacted the same way.]
The book combines sex scenes in vivid, luxurious settings with much historical detail, political intrigue, and suspense in fewer than 200 pages. If I didn’t have to read it, it would be a guilty pleasure. My only complaint is that the macho swagger and sexual appetite of the male characters are often over-the-top, and the dialogue leans toward excess. But after all, we are in ancient Rome. The author is revealed in a bio at the end as a woman with a husband, to whom she is grateful.
Later, I will post my comments about Backcast, A Novel, by Ann McMan, an epic of 368 pages from Bywater Books.