I’m going to try something new with this review – I’ll be reviewing the series as a whole while also providing mini-reviews/thoughts on each book in the trilogy. I think it’ll be a fun way to review series to see the progression of the series and how all the books are attempting to tell one overarching story. (Or failing and making me wonder why I ought to devote so much of my time in the series). First up, the Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy by Elisabeth Storrs.
WHAT THE SERIES IS ALL ABOUT—to summarize it succinctly as possible, it is showcasing Ancient Rome like I have never seen, experienced or known before.
I have a very basic understanding of Ancient Rome (thanks to a very brief but fascinating grade school curriculum from eons ago, but another subject for another day)—the whole founding of the city by twin brothers Romulus and Remus who are raised by a wolf, how Ancient Rome once upon a time has a monarchy but somehow gives way to a Republic, which somehow leads to Caesar and Brutus and Cleopatra and all that goodness as they struggle for ultimate power, and finally rounding off with Augustus who becomes the first emperor and the establishment of the Roman Empire which eventually collapses after centuries by the Goths. (See, don’t you want to thank the people who taught me about Rome?) Anything else between the very important events I have learned through masters of their craft such as Kate Quinn and Libbie Hawker, as they write interesting books that directly/indirectly examine the Roman Empire.
But Elisabeth Storrs chooses an entirely different period to examine—the early Roman Republic days. She focuses at how Rome eventually becomes the dominate power in Italy both culturally and politically as well as how the Etruscan society fades away. This is a period of history that I have zero knowledge about, and I am eternally grateful for the extensive research that Storrs has integrated in this beautiful series. While many of the characters are fictional, she does not try to create any character that will seem familiar to the 21st century reader; rather she attempts to remain faithful to the attitudes and conventions of the time which both excites and frustrates for my rather modern sensibilities.
First sign that the research seems very solid? The robust worldbuilding leads to the believable portrayal of two very different ancient societies that are twelve miles apart. Through Storrs writing, it is very close to time-travelling to examine how different the two cities are, both in attitude and in living standards. The most common difference is a theme that is revisited multiple times throughout the series—the treatment and attitude towards women. In Rome everyone expects respectable women to wear plain pallas (shawls) and stay at home and not voice their opinions or share tables with the menfolk. (That’s a lot of expectations.) In Veii, women are openly celebrated and can wear colourful clothing and their opinions are listened to if not accepted or considered valid. There are many other details that Storrs provides throughout the book to demonstrate how Veii as a city and a society is much more advanced than Rome and why Rome is so intent on capturing this bountiful city.
Storrs is also a master with her words, particularly her descriptions. I adored all the feasts that the Veii celebrate as she takes great care to paint the scenarios so that I can almost hear, see and smell what it is like to be part of the feasts. It is particularly interesting for her to weave in many religious implications that are associated with the feasts, which helps also the reader understand what the Etruscan society is like.
Almost all the characters in this series—even the supporting cast—are three-dimensional and there are some amazing character developments for two of the three female leads throughout this series. Caceilla is the first female lead as it is her marriage that launches the entire story; she starts off as a reluctant bride who believes that she is being given to barbarians and heathens. Her journey is long and can be frustrating at times for me since she is a very stubborn individual, but she also develops the most and eventually is willing to understand what reality she lives in and how to embrace changes. Pinna, one of the other female leads introduced in the second book also has a fulfilling character arc as she demonstrates how sometimes Roman women have no choice and makes the best of whatever she can. The other female lead is Semni, an Etruscan servant who has an equally compelling backstory as she is thrown out by her husband and is struggling between multiple loyalties, but I find her to the weakest out of all three leads. Overall though, I really enjoy the rest of the cast. Storrs chooses to devote almost equal amount of chapters between the Etruscan and the Romans, so while the Romans are technically the antagonists in the series they have plenty of screen time that explain explain why they are so desperate and how they are willing to do whatever it takes to conquer Veii. I personally find the reading all the Roman storylines to be even more interesting than the Veii storyline, because I have a greater understanding of Ancient Rome (however scant it may be) and it is interesting to see how the emerging power comes to life. I also think that it is because Storrs does an excellent job of humanizing most of the antagonists, so it is interesting to read about their conflicts both internally and within Rome.
This is a trilogy that definitely becomes stronger with each successive book. As the series moves along there is more action and battle scenes, more political intrigue and more morally ambiguous characters that muddle up the plot for the better. Again, more of the political intrigue comes from the Romans. It is another testament to Storrs writing that I am completely torn when reading the last book, as I have to force myself because I do not want to read the inevitable conclusion but at the same time I cannot help but turn the pages faster.
I will say the biggest weakness of this trilogy is how Storrs handles the romance aspects. It is not that she has poor romantic choices where she forces two characters together for no reason or that there is insta-love or that there is star-crossed lovers due to some cliché. In fact, the romances are fairly well-developed and each half of the romance is developed as a person as opposed to just a love interest (some more than others). But I find that sometimes romance can take center stage during very thrilling moments in the book—such as right before a siege or an important political moment—and I cannot help but think that there are so many other elements at stake and I wish to read about those instead. I also find it slightly annoying that all three female leads are motivated to take the actions that they did because of an emerging romance.
This is a brilliant historical fiction/romance trilogy that focuses on a very interesting slice of the Roman Republic history, and there is plenty of battle, intrigue, heartbreak and friendship for anyone to enjoy.