A slave waits to be crucified; a desperate young girl with strange abilities stalks through the streets of London; a gang of fugitives hides out in the Pyrenees, while on giant screens in every city, the world watches the funeral of the Imperial family's most glamorous couple.
Magnetic railways span the globe and slaves are constructing a giant bridge over the Persian Gulf. A single state holds absolute sway, but as tensions with a rival Empire escalate, the first rumblings of a world conflict are beginning to be felt. Meanwhile, only an overworked official doubts that the deaths of the Emperor's war-hero brother and his beautiful, charismatic wife were accidental. The sixteen-year-old heir to the throne is about to learn a secret that threatens the greatest power on earth - and his own life.
Sophia McDougall's novel Romanitas is an awesome sweep of alternate history, with a Rome that still exists in the 21st Century; fantasy, thanks to Sulien and Una, two slaves with more than a touch of the supernatural about powers they display; and science fiction, with an environment that pushes the boundaries of science as it exists now. It is an exploration into how to write a novel that transcends genre and purely concentrates on story.
For me, both the biggest strength and the biggest challenge of Romanitas was the epic, lush nature of the prose. For my sins, I do like an easy novel. I like something I can whip through in a few days and move onto the next. Disposable, I guess you'd say. Romanitas is pretty much the opposite of this. It is not a book to be read at speed, it is a book to be read slowly and savoured. You end up sinking into the richness of the prose and the sharp descriptions.
Romanitas is also imbued with a fierce intelligence and a love of language that echoes the best of China Mieville.
McDougall - fittingly, since she is one of the few contracted female science fiction authors in the UK at the moment - does a good turn in a strong female character. Una is to be cherished. She is not a fair maiden to be rescued - in fact, we first meet her in the action of trying to save her brother. She is also not completely kick ass and unbeatable - on one occasion, she rues the fact that she is not bigger and stronger, because she is captured far too easily. She is realistic - all spiky attitude, defensiveness, vulnerability, wonderment. She is completely three dimensional and believable and everything you'd want from a good female protagonist.
Thanks to the fact that slavery is still rife in this modern-day Roman Empire, McDougall spends some time exploring how that can affect relationships in a culture that values connections and celebrity. It is enormously interesting seeing the picture from both the lowest and highest points of society - Una and Sulien show the darkest side of slavery and the desperate lives they end up living; while Marcus demonstrates that living a gilded life is not exactly a picnic in the park either.
This is a clever, entertaining and thought-provoking novel. McDougall has presented us with a vividly imagined alternate world that frames the relationships between the main characters. Prepare to fall in love with Una! It is both powerful and extraordinary, and merits far more literary discussion. Excellent.