This book has 4 short-ish stories in it all inspired by ancient Rome. They are speculative fiction, not historical fiction.
Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary
This first story is told from the perspective of Julia Agrippina – Emperor Nero’s beloved mother. She tells her family history though a number of stories about fantastical beasts attacking her family. The story is full of sorrow and hardship as well as great glory. It is also a story if a series of women defying the expectations of their male relatives. The story of a series of very strong women. The structure of the story somehow really powers the story. Each little story about a beast attack used to tell a snippet of an important event in the family history. Not always in order, though towards the end the chronology is stricter.
I think it is wonderful to see a piece of historical fiction where the protagonist believes magical creatures totally real. Where she reports to have seen them herself. Where they course her real fear. They are not something to scare the children with or something to make a hero’s journey more heroic. The creatures and curses of the story are as real as the gladius in Agrippina’s hand. I liked that Roberts has chosen to use the roman words for many thing and is confident in her reader that she will figure out what the words mean or will know it. I like to be trusted and believed intelligent as a reader.
As a student of history I know quite a bit of the Roman Republic and empire. It is a period I find quite interesting so it is very cool to see a story set in the period.
This second story is a vampire story meeting a victorian story of the Grand Tour. Well it isn’t really vampires – it’s lamia – which are kind of ancient Roman vampires – except they aren’t. It’s also a story of a young woman of good breeding find a female lover. As with the first story it is a story about being fierce in a very female way. And as with the first story it is a story of doing horrible things and not really regretting them because they protect your kin.
I thought the story was interesting and because it was short it kept my interest, but I am not sure I would have stayed with it if it was a novel. But since it isn’t that hardly matters. The stories did play off a lot of the 1800s inspired stories that I have read/watched. It used that familiarity to let me fill in the blanks in the story. I know what Paris looked like in the 1800s so I didn’t need a long description and the story didn’t provide me with one – that wasn’t important to the story. It wasn’t the kind of story that lets you smell the bread or see the vibrancy of the marked. But because it played off familiar settings it didn’t need to be.
I think it did something interesting with the trope of the willing vampire victim/lover trope. The main character said that she enjoyed being food (and it was of course also pleasurable – it always is in the vampire romances). I don’t think I have ever heard it said so blunt before. I am reading Blood Trail by Tanya Huff right now and the protagonist has just become the vampire’s lover so that makes this become more poignant to me. It makes me question that relationship again. One of my friends told me last we talked about vampire romance that he do not get the fascinations of human/vampire romances because of the huge power imbalance there almost always is. The vampire being a lot older and having powers that the human woman can’t match. This question of enjoying to be food puts an interesting light on that. Hmmm I think I need to think more about that. Thank you Tansy.
Now the connection of the stories makes sense. The monster hunter Julius from Lamia Victoriana showed up in this story and so did the list from the first story. Very neat. This is the story of a woman growing up and growing old while encountering Julius over and over.
I liked that the story followed Cleo throughout her life and that her life was not all about Julius – he was more a recurring vignette in her life than the center. It was however a melancholy story but at this point I am not sure Roberts can write happy stories without putting in quite a bit of bitter to balance out the sugar. So far this is the story that has held the most emotional punch for me.
Last of the Romanpunks
This fourth and last story is about Cleo’s grandson who is far from a warrior, but find himself needing to be one anyway. Once again this story has lamias in it – perhaps the book should have been called Lamias and Romanpunk…
With this story I really came to love the world that Roberts has put together for us. The story tied up the full story of the collection really neatly while still leaving it open for more to be told. I loved the banter and how the protagonist wrestled with himself. Once again the story played with the meme that Julias are something special. I will have to tell my sister Julie about this story – she will like the idea.
To me the last two stories were the ones that worked best and the ones I connected the most with but they are also the ones that works best with the full story of the rest of the book. All in all I liked the book and some of it has started my mind thinking about vampire stories and our fascination with them.
Published: 2011 by Twelfth Planet Press
Read: September 1st – 2nd 2014
The author: Female, white, Australia