I was utterly smitten with the premise for this book: that the plot by the Praetorian Guard to assassinate Pertinax was discovered, and that the Roman Empire survived to the present day. South America is Roman: half of north America is also Roman, divided by a wall from the Nionian (Japanese) Empire's half of the continent to the west. For the first time in a long time I felt actually excited to be reading a new book. And what a disappointment it turned out to be.
The actual plot ought to be thrilling. The Emperor's brother and heir has been murdered, and Marcus, his son, fearing for his own life, has to abandon his life of luxury in Rome and attempt to hide out with a trafficker of escaped slaves. Two escaped slaves with strange psychic powers, also in danger of their lives if found, meet up with Marcus and the three travel awkwardly together. It ought to be riveting. But it's just not.
I feel as though having had her great idea about Rome surviving, she ran out of steam. Everyone is awkward, all the time: and while awkwardness is a function of the vast social gap between the Imperial family and escaped slaves, it just goes on for page after page and no one changes. There is no pace, no excitement, just a relentlessly damp narrative. The author has an absolute inability to create tension: I kept forgetting that these people were fleeing for their lives, and imagined them instead on a leisurely backpacking trip across Europe.
However, this small flaw is as nothing compared to Ms McDougall's total failure to write in actual English: here is an extreme but not atypical paragraph (it's about learning to drive, in case you can't tell):
"Now that Una and Dama were side by side again, it was very obvious that something, Dama, or more impersonally, the tension between them, had a chance here to jab out, to hector and punish Una. That this did not happen, the well-hidden effort that prevented it, was almost more draining. Dama was - for Una at least - a surprisingly good teacher, he was attentive, patient; everything he told her to do or not do was well judged. And Una responded well, too, the slight shaking or bucking of the car under her hands soon stopped. She was afraid of going fast, but Dama said, 'It's more dangerous here if you go slowly. You're not going to lose control of it,' and she pulled up to the right speed, trustfully, though turning pale. There were still good at this, at sharing work. Sulien saw this, and wanted to beg them, to beg Dama, to stop it. "
It. Makes. No. Sense.
Though the second half of the book, about Marcus trying to regain his position in the Imperial family, is much more interesting than the first half, about the slaves trying to avoid capture, it was too little and too late. Ms McDougall's Rome is lacking much grandeur and was not really worth saving from the barbarians.