I am a bit of two minds about this one. The setting is utterly fascinating – an alternative history where the Roman Empire never declined and fell but has continued on to the present day. I’m not sure how realistic it is that any empire would last for that long, but it certainly makes for a compelling alternative history concept. Against that background, the plot follows a group of three teenagers – two escaped slaves and the heir to the emperor on the run from assassins – as they try to bring down a conspiracy that originates from somewhere in the inner circle of power in the Empire.
This had me expect something really exciting, but unfortunately the novel fell somewhat short of my expectations – for the most part, I just could not connect to what was happening at all, and as a consequence the novel dragged considerably during its first two thirds. I can not even quite put the finger on what the problem was, but I suspect it was a certain lack of urgency during the travelogue chapters combined with a rather diffuse sense of place, the combination of which is pretty much deadly to any kind of pursuit story. Things do pick up in the last third third of Romanitas, though, once the action moves to Rome where things culminate in what is indeed a very exciting finale.
That I lasted that long at all and kept reading through the drab chapters leading up to the climax, was mainly due to the one element where the novel really shines, and that is characterization. I’d have a hard time to think of another novel that does teenagers so convincingly (and without being a YA novel, too!) and McDougall keeps a wonderful balance between having her characters behave in a reasonable manner and having their emotions or sheer impulse get the better of their reason. It’s this aspect that kept me hooked and will likely make me get the remaining volumes of the trilogy as well.