As someone who loves the books of Lindsey Davis, I pre-ordered this for my Kindle, and waited up for the download hour, just to read a bit before going to bed. Instead I read to the end, and don't grudge it a second of lost sleep. It's such a joy to be back in Davis' Rome - sweaty, vital, earthy, chaotic; yet grand, bureaucratic, over-organised (if never orderly), sure and proud of its importance to the world. A Rome which Davis inhabits so naturally I have moments of suspecting time-travel. Until I remember that her Rome is our Rome. (Berlusconi, anybody?). It is impossible to read this book and not feel the characters are us; up against it, just trying to keep our lives our own, with the same concerns - money, roof-over-head, work, messy marriages, kids, being suckers for our sad-eyed, scheming pets. Same hopes and ambitions. And - in the current climate of rage and rebellion, as dictatorship after dictatorship implodes - the same fears.
From the very start, as a wraith of smoke rises over the Vigiles (police-cum-fire) station where our man Clodianus is twiddling his thumbs, there is the sense of a world, and a man, on the edge of change. It's the moment he meets Flavia Lucilla - young and fierce, independent, but still far too naive. Then Rome burns. Clodianus, battle-scarred ex-legionary, becomes the hero of the fire, and the resultant meeting with Domitian - the traumatised, narcissistic, paranoid, finally psychotic 'Master and God' of the title - sets Clodianus on the road that leads him to choices none of us would ever want to have to make. That he travels this road in the company of Lucilla - co-tenant, then friend, then love - is the making of them both, and the novel. Because it is through their lives, their relationships, and their growing disquiet at a vicious, ever more unstable despot, that the history comes alive. This has always been Davis' gift - to use detail (food, clothes, beliefs, jokes, debatable hairstyles) and modern vernacular speech, to make us feel comfortable, almost familiar with a world 2000 years away. And at the heart of Davis' craft is, well, heart. Humour and humanity. Clodianus and Lucilla have the instinct for both; they are loyal, compassionate; they are scathing, they squabble; they rage for the murdered, the helpless and the betrayed. Yet they approach their world head on, with the sharp and even surreal humour we would all wish to muster. They are good-hearted, honest and kind. People I would like to have as friends.
But there is, as ever, humour in the narrative too. The comedy of the doctor's waiting room, the bawdy aged neighbour, the mutt; a laugh-out-loud joke about palanquins. It is this wit and warmth that has made the Falco novels so popular. But the other great strength, of those books and this, is that there is also anger. At the suffering, the poverty, the snobbery, the barbarity and the self-interest of the Roman world. At two particular instances of almost avidly cruel punishment, I was angry too. Even before I remembered that such crimes against the individual, against humanity, continue - just watch the news.
Which is why, on arriving at their final choices, Clodianus and Lucilla are so true. Because they choose to do what we would hope to do. The climax of this book is the stark reminder that, every day, ordinary people are faced with decisions this terrifying, this suicidal and this brave. This, in the end, is the story of those 'good men' and women who choose not to 'do nothing'. It's about what this will cost them, and their willingness to pay.
It struck me, at the end, that I have rarely read a book, seen a film, about a tough career soldier that was not all gung-ho, bullets and bomb blasts, look-at-me heroics; that felt real. This does. Clodianus is a man who is good at his job, accepts its dangers, and has suffered for it, and for Rome. He is a 'good Roman' in the way that Stauffenberg and von Trott were 'good Germans'; they watched the country they loved poisoned from the inside, and they acted to make that horror end. They chose to risk dying - condemned as traitors - rather than see what was still good in their country destroyed. There are people risking everything for this same good right now. There always will be. Those for whom non-violence is a luxury we have no right to cling to in the face of other people's pain. That Davis has produced a thumping good read driven by such a frightening premise is only what I would expect from her. Who else, in the acres and acres of research reading, would have noticed the name of a man, barely mentioned, and wondered about him, sided with him, then given him a voice. That she found, behind the absurd fashions of the Imperial court, a woman with such energy and such a subversive (though never sneering) sense of humour - such a match for this flawed,courageous man - is only right. I finished this book hoping that the Fates granted the real Clodianus, and whoever his Lucilla may have been, the ending his 'biographer' has given them here. This is a book about people who have earned the right to peace.