Three years after the events of the first book, Marcus is back in Rome and established as the Emperor-in-Waiting. Theoretically, life should be easier for our motley trio of heroes, and on the surface, it is. Sulien and Una are freed. Sulien is a doctor at a free clinic for slaves, a qqixouixotic effort that gets along with Marcus' patronage and the moral blackmail of Rome's industrial leaders. Una serves Marcus' informal advisor and even more informal lover. Her uncanny ability to read minds makes her an invaluable assistant, and, no matter how politically awkward it may be, the two of them are very much in love.
Nothing's ever easy and our heroes are facing problems both old and new. Drusus, for example, is still lurking around the fringes, feverishly plotting to take the throne for himself. Although no longer heir to the throne, Marcus' conniving cousin is convinced that he will be Emperor.
Also, Marcus is finding that his proposed reforms - especially his desired end to slavery - simply aren't happening. The Empire is too bogged down in its economic and cultural quagmire to enact a change of that magnitude. Marcus and Una's old allies, the escaped slaves, have all but given up hope in Marcus. Their loss of faith stings our heroes deeply.
Everything rapidly comes to a head in Rome Burning when Marcus' uncle, the Emperor Faustus, falls ill. Faustus is still the indecisive, muddle-headed Claudian figure he was in Romanitas, but he is, at least a buffer between the barely-adult Marcus and the burdens of state. When events conspire to make Marcus the Regent, he's now dealing with Rome's problems as well as his own.
And Rome's problems are much larger than Marcus' - Rome is burning. Rome - the city - is attacked by terrorists, presumably agents of the rival Nionian empire. Rome - the empire - is also under siege. The Roman wall in Terranova, the great structure that splits the two empires, is proving porous. Nionian and Roman skirmishes are becoming more and more frequent with greater and greater consequences. As much as Marcus would rather spend his regency quietly pushing along his domestic agenda, his first order of business is to avert a global thermonuclear war. (Well, except that nukes haven't been invented. Yet. Mostly.)
What follows is a much grander adventure than the preceeding novel. Marcus, Una and Sulien - as well as Lal and Varius - are scattered not just around Rome, but around Asia as well. The Sinoan and Nionian Empires, Rome's equally-decadent, equally-compelling global rivals, are both introduced and explored. Terranova also comes alive in more detail in the form of despatches from the front and a conversational asides. There's a greater sense of drama as well - more bloodshed, more sneaking about, more explosions and more grand processions. This isn't a case of cinematic sequelitis, this is the rational result of Marcus' new position in life: if Romanitas was the tale of three relative insignificants, Rome Burning is the story of the most important man in the world.
Fortunately, some things don't change. Ms. McDougall continues to foil the detail-heavy traditions of genre by maintaining a tight frame on the characters. Their journeys take them into more exotic locations, but the reader still only sees them through the protagonists' eyes. In our interview (shared earlier today), I implied that she was being almost deliberately perverse - there are battles happening somewhere, but we only hear about them through the news. Ms. McDougall's answer was telling: the characters are where the action is. The conflict in Rome Burning isn't a war - it is about preventing the war. One of the key lessons of Rome Burning is that there's nothing majestic about violence. Marcus and Una, despite their youth, understand this. Their struggle to keep the world from war and terrorism comes as an extension of that belief; their opponents are those that would callously use destruction as a valid tool for political ambition or jingoistic fulfillment. The action witnessed in Rome Burning supports this philosophy. It is nasty, bloody and unchivalric. It isn't about heroism - it is about death.
Ms. McDougall also continues the romantic tragedy that is Marcus and Una's relationship. Romanitas firmly established their star-crossed love. They're a good pair, but a mature one - they're fully aware of the yawning chasm between their social standings. At the start of Rome Burning, Una's elevated social status (that is, from "slave" to "free & awkward") has allowed them a discreet relationship, but they both still accept its impermanency. In Rome Burning, its end is nigh. Becoming bethrothed is Marcus' diplomatic ace in the hole and Marcus is forced to spend it. Without going into the details about the unusual new character that Ms. McDougall introduces, it is simply worth mentioning that the author handles the situation with her usual tact. Ms. McDougall's ability to create human, empathetic, and ultimately soul-destroying scenarios is on full display here.
Rome Burning is the best of both worlds. It maintains Romanitas' excellent tradition of elegantly-scripted, character-focused SF but also increases the stakes with high-powered political tension, global conflict, operatic romance and dire treachery. Rome Burning is not a better book than Romanitas, but it is a more evolved one.