I don’t know where to begin. Characters that entranced me from the first page? A dazzling background in Imperial Rome? Tight plot that wreaked every drop of action and emotion until you are completely wrung out? It has everything.
Thea is a slave girl from Judaea, passionate, musical, and guarded. Purchased as a toy for the spiteful heiress Lepida Pollia, Thea will become her mistress’s rival for the love of Arius the Barbarian, Rome’s newest and most savage gladiator. His love brings Thea the first happiness of her life-that is quickly ended when a jealous Lepida tears them apart.
As Lepida goes on to wreak havoc in the life of a new husband and his family, Thea remakes herself as a polished singer for Rome’s aristocrats. Unwittingly, she attracts another admirer in the charismatic Emperor of Rome. But Domitian’s games have a darker side, and Thea finds herself fighting for both soul and sanity. Many have tried to destroy the Emperor: a vengeful gladiator, an upright senator, a tormented soldier, a Vestal Virgin. But in the end, the life of the brilliant and paranoid Domitian lies in the hands of one woman: the Emperor’s mistress.
The back and forth story of Thea and Arius is captivating and I felt I was living in Imperial Rome, it became so real.
“The first time I went to an Imperial banquet I saw an orgy,” Calpurnia said bluntly. “And the second time I went I saw an assassination attempt, an arrest and a murder. I don’t really think I want to try a third time.”
At the half way point, I felt almost sick with emotion… I swung between wanting to gobble it up to see how it worked out, and slowing down to savour the immense richness. I wanted to cheer for Arius every time he went in the arena, literally fighting for his life. Arius wants to save his money to start a new life with Thea:
“I’m a slave. I can’t go with you.”
“I’ll buy you.” His voice was a low rush in my ear. “My prizes – enough to buy you three times over. Then when I get out of the arena -”
“You’ll never get out. You’ll die first -”
I wanted to cry for Thea and the other complex, multi-layered characters. Paulinus, the war-hero-turned-Prefect, so honest and upstanding, and so tied in knots by the wicked Lepida. The loyal Paulinus cannot believe the Emperor would be anything but kind to his mistresses.
“You’re good for him, Thea.”
“So I am… He leaves all his shadows for me, leaving the sunlight for the rest of you.”
I wanted to kill the Emperor. Thea only finds out, too late, how cruel and sadistic he is. One of the house slaves comes to her in the morning:
He paused when he picked up the dress I’d left on the floor, wrinkling his nose at the stains.
“Throw it away,” I said.
He looked at me with such immense sympathy, standing there with the ruined dress in his big hands, that I turned my face away. He’d probably seen it all before.
Emperor Domitian takes ownership of Thea:
When I looked up there was a blacksmith in the door, soot-stained and out of place on the elegant terrace.
“Weld it closed,” said Domitian. “It doesn’t matter if you burn her.”
“What?” I twisted my head to look at him. “Weld -”
A more elegant version of that tawdry ring,” he explained genially. “I added the stone out of whimsy. A black stone. Consider it my eye upon you. I like to mark my belongings.”
My heart was in my mouth so much, I couldn’t speak when I put this down. The tension winds tighter with each chapter to reach an almost unbearable level and I feared that Arius and Thea would never find happiness with each other. I was thrilled to find out that Kate Quinn’s follow-up novel is due for publication in a few months time. I need to immerse myself now in something light and frothy, while I try to recover from the intensity of reading this magnificent book. 6 stars