The International Writers Magazine
: Fiction Review

Romanitas by Sophia McDougall
Orion Books 2005 - 452 pages
ISBN: 0-75286-078-X
A Sam North Review

Suppose the Romans never left. Suppose they still maintain their empire, even larger with half of North America (Terranova) and South America thrown in for good measure. Suppose this modern Roman Empire had electric cars, TV (longvision) and in one essential throwback, still had an economy based on slavery. (Free labour). In Sophia McDougall's imagined Roman Empire of today – most carefully structured with well thought out timelines and evolutionary names and events, London is the important city it is today and naturally there is one european currency, one set of laws, and one hell of a seething underclass.

It isn’t so fantastic given the growing power of Brussels and the universality of the euro. In Romanitas the Emperors and would be Caesars still battle for power and poison and murder each other. We only have to look to the last election in the Ukraine to see that poison is still in use to gain power (only there, a popular uprising forced an unexpected ‘democratic’ result).

Romanitas isn’t so fanciful after all. A young heir to the throne Marcus Novius Faustus Leo discovers his newly dead parents, allegedly killed in a car crash, were murdered. Varius, his father’s closest confidant’s wife is accidentally poisoned by sweets given to young Marcus, a gift from his cousin. It means there is a plot to kill him to and now Marcus has to flee to survive, shaving off his hair and hiding in a freight car heading who knows where. Add to this, a slave, Sullien separated from his sister years ago, now a protégé of a prominent doctor in London, has made the mistake of falling for his daughter. They are caught in flagrante and he is accused of rape. The girl in question does not deny it. Sullien is crushed. There is only one punishment for a slave who has raped, crucifixion.

In the prisoner slave ship heading down the Thames towards his doom, his long lost sister swoops down in one last desperate chance to free him before he is killed. Succeeding as bullets fly when the rest of the slavers grab the guard’s guns, they flee to the continent and a life on the run. Out there, one is either master or slave and they don’t look like masters. Sullien is impressed and a little scared of his sisters skills. She can read minds. Really get into the deepest thoughts of a person. They set up as fortune tellers and await their fate.

Inevitably brother and sister will meet with the escaped Roman, Marcus. He is friendless, desperate, in need of friends. His image is in every ‘longvision’ screen and all of Europe is looking for him and wanting to cash in the reward. When Marcus suddenly appears in front of Una, trying to escape two thugs who have robbed him, Sullien and his strange sister Una try to make a deal with the authorities. Sullien’s pardon for revealing where the royal fugitive is hiding. But when Una is captured herself by an inn keeper the tables are turned and it is the boy they have tried to betray who must help them.
A forced friendship is formed but it will have fundamental ramifications for the future of the Empire, this Marcus, the boy who would be Emperor, wants to abolish slavery. They must save him, keep him alive. They journey south – towards a place where slaves are safe and the long reach of Rome can’t find them.

Meanwhile the one man who knows where Marcus is going, Varius, has been imprisoned, tortured and blackmailed to reveal everything.

Although this is Sophia McDouglall’s imagined world, there are many routes to this work.
Stephen Baxter’s Coalescence for example; which takes us from the days when the Roman’s abandoned the UK in the fourth century to consolidate and somehow survives to the present day, smaller, but still powerful. (There is a substory about fantastic breeding capabilities and voyages into a far distant future that spoil this work but the ideas are quite similar). Then there is the matter of Troublesome Angels and Flying machines by Hazel Marshall – Oxford University Press 2003. No Roman tale to be sure, but it tells of Marco Polo’s nephew on a grand adventure escorting a psychic young girl who can foretell futures and help him get in and out of scrapes. Then there is British Science fiction compilation Futures - edited by Peter Crowther (Gollanz 2001) and in it a novella Watching Trees Grow by Peter F Hamilton. This is an amazing Inspector Morse episode that takes place over at least a hundred years. We are in 1832, an England still ruled by the Romans, or at least the Romano-Christian elite led by descendants of the Borgias that have maintained their grip not just on England but the whole world. America discovered long ago is now a country of some one and half billion souls. Oxford is still a university town but under Vatican rules. Business and Science are led by prominent families such at the Caesars, Raleighs, or Pitts. The Percysą control London, the Ceasarsą Southampton.

Clearly there is a passion for an alternate history, perhaps a longing for order in our past that was never going to be there. But Empires can't last 2000 years - none ever have, but it doesn't hurt to imagine one that has. Certainly Sophia McDougall had fun with this, her first novel and one looks forward to her next.

If there is a fault with Romanitas it is that the protagonists are too capable, too wise, too special. Sure we need heroes in a world without them but a slave girl with such extraordinary shaman powers to read ones innermost thoughts and cloud the minds of others so that they cannot see you walk by is special enough. That might have been enough for one book. But her brother Sullien has a gift too, to be able, by touch, heal almost any disease or wasted limb. Together they can get out of almost any scrape, like any superhero and in fact, it might have been better if they were less special, more normal, more feral, and more believable.

Young Marcus is a more sympathetic portrait, keen, well educated, not the snob one might have believed him to be, given his upbringing and expectations. He is filled with dread and properly afraid when he needs to be, assertive and confident when he has to be. With an old head on young shoulders, he is much more credible. One can certainly understand his fascination with the strange ethereal Una who can read minds, but could he ever really trust her, knowing she can see whatever he is thinking? As they journey and experience trials and tribulations all three are transformed and each in turn must save each other.

Romanitas is an exciting read and anyone who has grown up on Philip Pullman and doesn’t know where to go for an exciting tale with some original ideas about an alternative European history, Romanitas is an thrilling tale filled with treachery, colourful imagery and fully imagined past.

© Sam North - September 2005 –
Sam's new book ‘The Curse of the Nibelung – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ is published by Lulu Press USA

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