Aven sits at the centre of its world. Rome, but one step to the left, Aven is a republic on the rise. Its senate believes they’re at the centre of the world. And why wouldn’t they? Aven’s gods - Juno, Mars, a familiar pantheon - clearly favour them. Aven is on the cusp of authority over much of the known world. And the city lives and breathes that truth. The question in that world, in the marble halls of the forum and the grime of the Suburra, is what that truth means. Whether the city should expand its influence, bring more of the world under its aegis, and accept change as a consequence alongside trade and wealth - or whether to shut itself away, isolate itself in the name of purity, hold fast to what it has, and let the rest of the world fend for itself. It’s an issue of identity which feels very contemporary, even embedded in the systems, institutions and personalities of an alternate Rome. From street to street, from Senate hall to darkened forest, Aven and its world are real, living, breathing places. The author really manages to capture a sense of place- -from the bustling urban metropolis of Aven, with its marble lined hallways and decrepit tenement blocks, to the isolated farms and small villages that drive an agrarian economy, to the wild lands beyond the reach of the legions, where unpleasant spirits and inimical tribes hold sway under lowering boughs. Even as the Aventine are our Roman analogues, still we see other perspectives - in both their allies and their enemies, both of whom clash not only in terms of arms, but culturally with the Aven; indeed, their unwillingness to assimilate, and the struggle of some tribes to assert their own identity (albeit with, er, unpleasant blood magic) is part of what drives the conflict for the story. This clash of ideology and identity is combined with an interest in the liminal spaces - the borders where changes can be made. Socially, yes - in the tribes that ally with the Aventine, and the Aventines that see the role of their city as part of a wider world, but also in a more concrete fashion; this is a world of gods, of magic, of mysticism and active spirits, as much as blood and iron.
Incidentally, there’s rather a lot of that. The legions of Aven are on the march, coming to the aid of their allies in not-Spain. When the tribes and the legions meet, it’s often messy - and the battles are wonderful set pieces of tactics, magic and adrenaline. The crash of blood-fuelled berserkers again a shield wall thunders off the page. The world changes as we turn those pages, and the stakes are at once extremely high, and extremely personal. The visceral energy of combat is matched by the mystery and intrigue of investigations into a magical conspiracy at the highest levels of the Aventine seat of power. That strand is a compelling blend of mystery and magic, of betrayals, divided loyalties and stunning revelations.
The characterisation is top notch. Latona of the Vitelliae remains our central protagonist, a woman who is slowly coming out from under the shadow of her own trauma. Latona is growing more aware of her own strengths now, less willing to accept the word of others, to shrink into her own self. Instead, she’s reaching out to others, making connections and constructing a self of her own, one which is shaped by her past, perhaps, but not defined by it. Latona is clever, articulate, and above all, good - a heroine who does the right thing for the right reasons, or at least tries to. Watching her slowly unfurl, build a self confidence backed by actions, is a pure joy. That she kicks arse, holding fire and friendship in one hand, and spirit and righteousness in the other, is great too. Every time she appears on the page, Latona is a joy - and that she does so in the company of her family dynamics, likewise. We can see her speaking with her sisters, working through relationships shaped by year, and struggling with a failing marriage, as well as a father who isn’t quite sure who she really is. This is a woman who has lived a life, and her life is a thing all its own, of texture, weight, sorrow and joy.
Part of Latona’s changes is her budding romance with Sempronius, the general currently leading legions into a maelstrom of blood magic and madness. Sempronius remains fun to watch, as he shuffles pieces around like they’re on a chessboard, parts of his agenda still uinclear, but his essential humanity and decency still very much visible. If he seems pale beside the pure energy of the Vitelliae women, that is not to his detriment - the Vitelliae each bring a presence to the page, and make for a wonderful read.
Which is what I’d say about this story of conspiracy, murder, epic battles and marvellous, mysterious magic. It’s a wonderful read, and you should definitely give it a try.