LJ Trafford’s ‘Palatine’ is the first in a series of historical novels giving the author’s take on one of the most momentous years in the Roman Empire – 69 AD – a year in which saw no fewer than 4 emperors. This book covers the events which led to the chaos of 69: Nero’s unwinding and eventual suicide and the interregnum of his Praetorian prefect Sabinus. As someone who is relatively familiar with the events, I must say that I enjoyed seeing them given flesh and blood (and there’s a fair bit of both).
The year of the four emperors is a potentially confusing, fast-moving historical episode with a bewildering cast of intriguers and king-makers, and the novel does a good job of telling the story at human rather than political scale. Trafford’s skill at characterisation is part of this success – the effete male concubine Sporus (described by the author as ‘part-time Empress’), the nervous and conflicted scribe Philo, and the savvy, survivalist Epaphroditus all being good examples of this. Her evident knowledge of and love for the period shine through as well. The world she describes has clearly lived inside her head for many years prior to making it onto the page.
Another reason that this novel manages to transcend pure political fiction is through its use of slave characters to do much of the heavy-lifting required by the storyline. The reader is given a glimpse at the underside of palace life, necessarily invented and imagined but never less than plausible. Their various sub-plots, fears and grim experiences set an effective tone of menace and helplessness, even if Mina’s acquisition of the skills of whip-flicking did come across as a scene cut from an early draft of Game of Thrones! I wonder if they will come in useful further down the line…
Some historical novels can be burdened by the weight of their realism – the author’s need to describe every nuance of culture, practice, technology and domestic reality of the time. Trafford dances past this common pitfall, providing enough detail to draw the reader into a different world, but avoiding the temptation to over-describe. The result is that the story feels modern and believable, rather than preserved in aspic for its historical rather than dramatic interest.
What didn’t I like? The pace with which the story unfolded was at times more languorous than urgent. The pages turned rapidly enough, but it felt that there were stretches where the story advanced only incrementally. Apart from that, I have only minor, stylistic and prudish quibbles. On the former, some of the language put into characters’ mouths was anachronistic (though I’m sure ancient equivalents existed), and this brought down the fourth-wall somewhat. On the latter, there were a few too many descriptions of a sexual and scatological nature for my tastes. This is entirely a personal preference – it is accurate to represent imperial Rome as being both filthy and rife with sexual exploits and exploitation, I’d just rather ‘take it as read’. I suppose it depends on what you have approached this novel wanting to see!
As you would expect in the opening title of a series, the book ends with many, many storylines only temporarily at rest, and the reader is left in no doubt that the next instalment, ‘Galba’s Men’, will be as eventful as the first. I’m looking forward to reading it.