Orphaned by Rome's savage legions, Thea, a slave girl from Judaea, has learned what it takes to survive. She knows only violence until a chance meeting with gladiator Arius offers a shred of tenderness. But their bond is severed when Thea is sold again, condemned to rot in squalor.
Years later, a singer known as Athena betrays no hint of her troubled past. Catching the eye of the Emperor himself, she is swept into a world of decadence and depravity. But althought Domitian fears betrayal from every side, he is unaware that the greatest threat lies next to him - a slave girl who has come to be called the Mistress of Rome...
It's hard to know how to review Mistress of Rome. On the one hand, I swept through it in one day, finding the prose to be simple yet effective and the historical details vivid. On the other hand, I felt that it came across much as a soap opera programme or chick lit novel would - light, easy-to-read, with larger than life characters and ultimately forgettable. Although I enjoyed the novel, I don't honestly see it staying with me for very long.
One factor that struck me while reading Mistress of Rome is how fantastical it seemed - when I thought on this, I believe it might be because of how long ago the time period being represented was. We know sweeping details of the Roman Empire - who ruled when, military campaigns, political machinations - but the real nitty gritty details and the secondary historical figures (those that didn't impact on history) have been lost, and hence the novelist needs to flesh out the missing elements.
The fantastical side to Mistress of Rome was not helped by Quinn including a character who could supposedly see the future.
However, my knowledge of ancient Rome and the period of Domitian is confined to historical fiction rather than solid research of my own, so I am definitely not an authority on whether Quinn's novel is historically accurate or not.
I did love the character of Thea/Athena - she was strong, righteous and very readable. Equally I detested the character of Lepida (Thea's mistress when we are first introduced to the slave, and her ongoing nemesis) - Quinn's writing here was extremely effective, since we are supposed to despise the decadent and spiteful woman. In fact, all of the characters leapt off of the page, and were a massive strength in Quinn's debut novel. She wrote them with great assurance, and, if some of them were a little too black and white at times, they were never less than entertaining.
I marvelled at the attitudes and actions of Emperor Domitian - he was marvellously complex: dignified and despicable by turn. If Quinn's tale truly revealed any part of the truth of his life, then he was a man to be feared by those close to him.
The representation of the gladiatorial games was rich with detail and very enjoyable to read. These were my favourite parts of the novel - well, that and the fabulous descriptions of Lepida's wardrobe!
Mistress of Rome is gossipy, with scandal, glamour and plenty of action. At its heart is a love story with depth and passion. As you can see, it is a mixed up novel that I genuinely enjoyed it and would recommend the novel to others - but only as a fun read, as opposed to something that will stay with you past the last page.