Romanitas, by Sophia McDougall

December 28, 2013 at 09:16 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , )

Romanitas

7/10

7/10

The writer of this review site has commented several times on his repeated disappointment, regret, and guilty pleasure that follows almost any alternate history novels with gloomy inevitability. It is always with a heavy heart that a new one is begun, and always with a heavier heart that it is later set down. Romanitas provides–not so much an exception–as a chink of light that suggests all is not so dreary in this field as might be supposed.

“‘It isn’t justice,’ said Cleomenes, unhesitatingly. Varius snorted a little, scornfully. Cleomenes added, ‘And you will help us find Marcus Novius.'”

-Romanitas

It is not for her writing that Sophia McDougall stands out from the morass of alternate fiction writers. Her writing is competent and engaging, though overprone to slackness and a passive habit that suggests at times her creation is at risk of escaping her abilities. Neither is it for her concept. Her concept is certainly fresh and initially exciting, and while at times the grey old world of the real shows through, this allows her to build a world that is believable and visceral, as well as being a novelty.

One of her greatest successes, though, is her refusal to grandstand or monologue on behalf of her own cleverness. It is her staunch refusal to fall into the trap of telling rather than showing how the world of Romanitas is different and worth the read. There are occasional explanations of ancient history, and how her timeline diverged from what the reader will know as real life. Sensibly, some of this is even handled in a brief appendix. At no point is the reader given cause to wonder what happened to the story, and why he’s being lectured on political events utterly irrelevant to the current predicament of the main characters.

With these modest successes and impressively-avoided pitfalls, Romanitas progresses pleasantly but not thunderously. As with any fugitive plot, there are moments when the willing suspension of disbelief wears a little thin, or where the necessity of a limited viewpoint will annoy even a patient reader. There are chapters that seem nothing but a litany of rushed poetry on grey mountains and windswept highways. There are at least one or two deus ex machinae littered around, which make the plot seem more ragged than it really is. In spite of at least two sequels, Romanitas reads admirably on its own, without the phantom shadow of an unborn sibling hanging over the ending. The verdict can only be that this is an imperfect work, and a book that will require patience at times, but for anybody in earnest search of good alternate histories to read, this would be a fine place to start.

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