Friday, September 20, 2013

Dominus et deus

Continuing in our travels across the annals of time and the sweep of history, let's leave the 19th century and head back a millennia or two to the first century. Jesus Christ has been born and crucified, but the Roman Empire lingers on. We're past Julius Caesar and the Claudians (discussed briefly here) and have moved on to the Flavians. The author Lindsey Davis, who has chronicled the anachronistic adventures of a wise-cracking P.I. named Marcus Didius Falco who operated during the Emperor Vespasian's era, has moved on -- in a stand-alone historical romance -- to the troubled reign of his son, Domitian, in Master and God.

Gaius Vinius Clodianus is a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress reluctantly mustered into the Emperor's Praetorian Guard (his personal bodyguards) under the maxim of no good deed goes unpunished. Flavia Lucilla is the daughter of a freedwoman with a talent for hairstyling and cosmetics who has Domitian's wife as a client. They are primed to watch a once-promising leader spiral into madness, a man who insists on being addressed as not only emperor, but god: Dominus et Deus. Through circumstance, they end up sharing an apartment, with very definite boundaries laid where each is welcomed. And -- although it does not come easily -- they are destined for each other. If they can survive the political intrigues and romantic missteps they encounter over the 15 years of Domitian's rule, it just might end happily.

Considering my appreciation and enjoyment of historical fiction, there is simply too much history here. Master and God is laden with details from Davis' research, some of which is interesting, but for me, it mostly got in the way of the engaging ill-starred romance between Flavia and Gaius. They finally became a couple at Disc 10, and my first thought was what was left to happen in the last three discs? Oh, yes ... we have to get all the way through Domitian's era. What follows is an excruciatingly detailed description of the plot to assassinate the Emperor, full of confusing names and meeting places and plots and counterplots. There was also a hugely obvious foreshadowing of the fate of the couple that pretty much destroyed all the remaining tension.

The late Robin Sachs narrates the audiobook (it must have been close to his last work).  He has a soothing, yet rusty, voice that is very pleasant to listen to. It was Sachs as narrator that drew me to this audiobook, as I listened to him earlier this year and wished to try him again. He reads fairly deliberately here, but I enjoyed his characterization of the flawed yet appealing Gaius.  Sachs captures that contradiction of good-man/bad-decisions in his reading. He reads women in a natural way that brings Flavia to vivid life as well.

On Davis' website, she talks about the English version of this audiobook which has two readers who read the dialogue of Gaius and Flavia when they are having a tête-à-tête, and then take on the whole narrative depending on whose perspective the part of the story is from. Davis herself adapted her book (but did not abridge it) for this approach. The purist in me asks why do only the main characters have this kind of dialogue, but then again, it might be kind of interesting to listen to (not interesting enough to work through this book for the second time, though).

One of the joys/perils of working in a library is the continual temptation of the products available to borrow. I came home with three more audiobooks (to add to the three already waiting for me at home) this weekend. And yes, two of them are historical fiction -- the trend is evidently to continue.

[Domitia Longina's fancy hairdo may well have been created by Flavia. This bust lives in the Musée de Louvre and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Master and God by Lindsey Davis
Narrated by Robin Sachs
AudioGO, 2012.  15:44

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