I first want to mention that I picked this book to read while on vacation in Italy, just to make it more atmospheric. It’s possible being in the place where the novel takes place influenced my reading of it.
Mistress of Rome follows Thea, a slave of Jewish heritage, Arius, a gladiator from Britannia, and Lepida, a rich Roman woman. The cast is rounded out by characters in moving in and out of all three of their orbits such as the senator Lepida marries, his son, and the Emperor himself. Over the course of (if my math and memory is correct) about thirteen years, the paths and fates of the three main characters weave together by way of political intrigue, social climbing, and the manipulative machinations of Lepida.
The story opens with Thea, a girl of fifteen, who is the “body slave” of the wealthy Lepida (also fifteen.) Although Thea lives by Lepida’s whim, she carries the history and memory of her people in Masada, the intelligence of languages, and a silent strength to carry her through the harsh life of a slave. Lepida fits the stereotype of the spoiled, bratty rich girl who throws a tantrum whenever she doesn’t get something she wants. Both girls witness Arius “the barbarian,” in the Colosseum arena where he becomes a celebrity due to his undefeated status in the ring. But things don’t go as Lepida plans with Thea always, without trying, getting what Lepida wants.
I won’t go into spoiler territory since the story is intriguing and entertaining, but I will say that I really enjoyed Mistress of Rome. That said, there were a few things that bothered me. There is about a ten (I think) year age gap between Thea and Arius when their relationship starts (keep in mind she is fifteen.) At first this didn’t sit well with me, but I had to remind myself that I was looking at it from a modern perspective. In the ancient world, life spans were shorter and milestones were compressed–i.e. it was common then. The second point that bothered me, and this was really throughout, was Lepida as a character. While she is a clear foil to Thea, as well as a driving force behind the trials Thea faces over the years, Lepida herself lacks complexity. She has zero redeeming qualities (in my opinion, the best villains are those that walk the line of good/bad.). She is a stereotype through and through, to the point where it was unbelievable. Okay, we know she’s a spoiled rich girl who pouts when she doesn’t get something she wants, but there is really no believable motivation behind her frivolous and soap operaish evil and manipulative schemes. Okay, so maybe she’s just a psychopath? Everything she did, thought, and said was just so cliche soap opera that is was predictable. The third thing that bothered me, and this kind of goes along with my last point, is that the Emperor was very similarly constructed in that his character leans far too much on cliches and stereotypes. He was sadistically evil and cruel apparently just for his own amusement. Okay, so maybe he’s just a psychopath too, but at this point I’m pretty over women being continually brutalized in historical fiction.
Those three points aside as well as some other cliche/trope-y moments, I truly did enjoy this compelling book. I intend to read the next in the series which should be a good indication that you should read Mistress of Rome.