ROME BURNING is the second in the ROMANITAS trilogy, based in a Roman Empire that still exists today. This version of the Empire is a mix of the ancient traditions and stylings, alongside technology which bears some, limited, resemblance to current day. The Earth is divided into different and very large nation states and the tension between these states continues to grow, following on, albeit 2 years later, from ROMANITAS - the first book in the trilogy.
This trilogy is a big and rather complicated undertaking for the reader to dive into (I think you'd definitely have to have ROMANITAS before starting on ROME BURNING). For a start there's the nature of the story which is part mystery and intrigue; part epic power struggle; part science fiction / fantasy. The setting is in a world that whilst it's Earth - it's not the one that we know. The world is divided into large nation states, one of which is the Roman Empire. The timeframe is more current day though, but it's not current time as we'd recognise totally. For a start there's the layout of the nation States, but more disconcertingly is the combination of the Roman Empire and technology. The technology is again not quite what we have in the real world, but it's sort of close. Car's of a type, longdictor's (video communicators) go alongside less than advanced medical technology, ancient Roman names and rites. All in all it's a complicated undertaking.
McDougall writes well and that helps the reader of ROME BURNING progress, otherwise there are elements of the book that are slightly off-putting for a reader who is not expecting that alternative history or does not usually read those sorts of books. The thing that the quality of the writing can't quite cover up is some of the melodrama. McDougall likes to put some of her characters through the full wringer of events and emotions and at points it can read a bit like a soap opera.
The beginning of the book incorporates a map of the world with the nation States outlined on it, as well as a more detailed map of the area around the Great Wall of Terranova. There is also a character list which proved useful as the names, frankly, were a bit tricky to keep in your head. At the back of the book there is a Short History of the Roman Empire (as depicted in the trilogy). This was incredibly handy for giving you some feeling of the "history" of the book world.
An odd reading experience for a fan of crime and mystery fiction, ROME BURNING is possibly not quite as engaging as the first book in the trilogy. Fans of science fiction and alternative histories may find it more satisfying.
ROMANITAS - Sophia McDougall
ROMANITAS, as the first book of a trilogy, is toying with a number of central themes.
There are actually 3 great empires covering the world - the Roman which now spreads into North America, parts of Africa and China. Sinoa - parts of China, parts of South-Asia, up into Mongolia and Russia and Nionia - spreading it seems almost from Japan, covering Australasia and elsewhere.
The empires all exist in a timeframe that feels a bit like current day; it was a car accident that killed Marcus' parents after all; but the technology is played with a bit in ROMANITAS as well - all the cities in the Roman Empire have massive communication screens, mechanised crucifixes dot the banks of the Thames. There is also a bit of woo woo - or the other worldly - Una, after all, can look inside other people's minds.
For all the sweeping nature of the world being built in this first book, the "action" of the book is actually pretty restricted. It centres on events surrounding 3 teenagers from very different backgrounds who are unexpectedly thrust together. Marcus Novius, orphaned Imperial heir. Una, watching the funeral ceremony on one of the giant screens in London, loathes everything Marcus stands for. She is on her way to rescue her brother, both siblings separated for most of their lives. Sulien is about to be crucified, falsely accused of rape - brother and sister are slaves, coming from a desperately poor and cruel background. As unlikely as it seems, all three become fugitives together.
In the initial stages of the novel, the reader is thrust immediately into this unexpected, mixed up world. That's slightly disconcerting and weird and you're immediately engaged, trying to understand what strange world is this. The book quickly shape shifts, however, into a sort of journey novel - the story of the 3 teenagers and how they meet and then escape their individual fates takes up a pretty hefty component of the central part of the book and the alternative world sort of disappears a bit. Whilst there is quite a bit of tension built up in this escape tale, it does move at snails pace. There is a then a final flurry of activity and some slightly odd positioning of explanation towards the end of the novel (for example the conspiracy against Marcus really only gets explained right at the end - giving it a bit of an afterthought feeling).
Strangely enough for what started out as promising an alternative world scenario, and sort of ends up delivering a form of mixed reality; ROMANITAS morphs into a reasonable character study where the opportunity to get to know the 3 main characters becomes the focus, and even the supporting cast of characters are fairly well-drawn and involving. Add to that an engaging prose style, if you're willing to allow the Empire to be a mishmash of odds and ends from now and then; then there's probably enough to make you look to the second book to see where the current day Roman Empire is headed.
The second Book in the Trilogy - Rome Burning was released in 2007. You might also want to visit the website for the trilogy at http://www.romanitas.com/