strange_complex: (La Dolce Vita Trevi)
This is the sequel to The Rich Are Different, which I reviewed here and which translates the story of Julius Caesar's dictatorship and death, followed by Octavian's rise to power, to the finance houses of New York in the 1920s and '30s. This second volume takes up a few years after the last left off, and follows events equivalent to those which happened in ancient Rome between 23 and 2 BC - or, in the story, between 1949 and the late 1960s. It is long and complex, running over more than 600 pages and with six sections each narrated by a different point of view character: Sam Keller (Agrippa), Alicia (Livia), Cornelius (Augustus), Sebastian (Tiberius), Scott (Iullus Antonius) and finally Vicky Van Zale (Julia). We learn a great deal about all of them, not to mention many others, and there are multiple sub-plots, emotional crises and personal revelations along the way. I'm not going to try to summarise the whole thing, but will instead concentrate on how it works as a (loose) Augustus novel, and as a reception of Roman history.

I will start, though, by mapping out how the characters in this novel match up to their Roman equivalents )

Cornelius / Augustus: public success and private unhappiness )

Vicky / Julia: finding happiness in a parallel universe )

Howatch's historical and literary canvass )

All in all, then, I was extremely impressed with this novel, just as I was with its predecessor. Its approach to the basic Augustus-story at its heart may be more or less conventional, but only within a pretty small pool of novels or screen portrayals which attempt to do this at all. Meanwhile, the translation to the world of New York banking loosens the tie to its historical foundations just enough to give Howatch room to do some interesting and original things with the source-material, while the wide range of historical and literary allusions develop the story considerably further. In fact, that aspect of the book reminded me sometimes of the way Diana Wynne Jones uses similar material, such as the story of Tam Lin in Fire and Hemlock or Donne's poem about a falling star in Howl's Moving Castle. In short, there is rather more to this novel than the family saga story which most of the internet seems to have it down as, and I am looking forward to putting this review on my real-name blog to help balance out that impression.

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strange_complex: (Christ Church Mercury)
More reviews, and I am finally on to the books which I read in 2012 - yay! I can't honestly recommend this one, though. I bought it on the basis of a review in the Oxford Alumni magazine, which made it sound rather Philip Pullmanesque, all full of vampires and witches and a mysterious magical manuscript. But I'm afraid that, although it certainly does feature vampires and witches and a magical manuscript, it fell well short of my expectations as an actual story.

In fact, I nearly gave up on it altogether part-way through the first chapter, which was basically a massive info-dump about the main character's back-story, told from a first-person perspective as she is going about a day's work in the Bodleian Library. Coming at a point when I had not yet been given any reasons to care about that character, this was neither terribly interesting, nor stylistically pleasing. It felt a lot like I was reading the author's file of notes about her, except awkwardly inserted into the narrative. I persevered, though, on the grounds that I have paid for the book and was damned well going to get my money's worth.

As the story developed, it also became clear that this main character was basically one huge great stonking Mary Sue. The descriptions of her physical appearance closely match the author portrait on the back cover, both author and character are American-born historians working on the history of science (esp. alchemy) who have spent a lot of time in Oxford, and, whaddaya know, the character begins the story believing that she has no magical powers and wanting to live her life as an ordinary person, but turns out to be the most powerful witch of her generation, with an astonishing range of hitherto-unknown abilities, never seen together in a single being within living memory, all emerging in her over the course of the story. She is the only person who has ever been able to retrieve the magical manuscript at the heart of the story from the Bodleian stacks; the mysterious and incredibly handsome vampire character of course falls deeply in love with her at first sight (going completely against what we are told of both his own character and social convention in their world); and she basically turns out to be the unwilling key player in a centuries-old struggle between various types of magical creatures, all of whom are desperate to either kill or or lay down their lives for her. In short, she couldn't be any more of a cliché if the author had deliberately been setting out to parody the entire Mary Sue trope.

There is a lot else in the story which reads like a pastiche, too. The main character's discovery that she not only has magical powers, but particularly choice ones too, is very Harry Potteresque - although to be fair many fantastical stories have used this device, and for that reason I'm prepared to let it pass. It's a trope, but a trope doesn't necessarily mean a bad story. There's a lot more, though. There are a lot of love scenes about the vampire character fighting against his natural desire to chow down on the witch character because he loves her so much, which I believe is these days a mainstay of the Twilight stories. The uneasy co-existence within one story-world of several supernatural species - vampires, witches and (more originally) daemons - is again familiar from Twilight, not to mention True Blood, Being Human, the Buffyverse and a bunch of others. The author's apparent belief that moving the characters from exotic setting to exotic setting (Oxford, a French chateau, New York state) and going on a lot about sensual luxuries (silken sheets, old wines, architecture) will make the story interesting can be traced back to Anne Rice. And Dan Brown has kindly lent the device of a quasi-legendary secret organisation with roots in the period of the Crusades (the Knights of Lazarus) and a malign panel of beings seeking to control the workings of the world without ever revealing themselves in public (the Congregation).

Towards the end, the story also involves a little time travel, since one of the (very many) magical abilities which the main character develops over the course of the narrative is 'time-walking' - that is, the ability to step back into a particular period in the past, aided by a couple of artefacts which have come from the place and time she wants to get to. This perked me up for a moment, because I loves me some time travel, but in practice it was incredibly badly-realised. She and her vampire paramour travel back to his mother's French castle, during a period of several weeks (if not months) earlier in the novel when they had been staying there. But somehow they don't encounter their previous selves while they are there. Instead, their previous selves are mysteriously and conveniently entirely missing from the castle, while the new versions of the two main characters interact perfectly freely with the occupants without anyone ever saying either "Oh, but we thought you'd gone out for the evening?" or "Hold on, weren't you in the library just now?" or anything of the sort. In other words, all the cool fun stuff about time travel just wasn't there at all, so that they might as well not have done it.

Meanwhile, the plot itself unfolds incredibly slowly, with very little happening for long sections of the book. There is a lot of material which could very easily have been edited out, and a general feeling that the real concern of the book throughout was with character-delineation and world-building rather than plot. That would be fine if it was good character-delineation and world-building, but as I've explained above, it wasn't. In the end it didn't come as much of a surprise when I finished the book and discovered that the story was by no means over - rather, it was only really beginning, and there would be a sequel out soon to continue it.

Weirdly, all that said, once I had got past the abysmal first chapter, I found myself rather enjoying reading the rest of the book. I think this was because I had realised that it was so second-rate that there wasn't really much point remembering the fine details of the plot or characterisation in order to see how they would pay off later, or analysing the story motifs in order to spot clever allusions or inter-texts. It just wasn't worth that kind of attention, and this meant that instead it simply became comforting brain-candy at the end of each day. I even kind of got to like the predictable, unchanging behaviour of the main characters. But that's still not enough reason to buy the sequel.

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