While it’s been a long time between books set in Ancient Rome, never before have I read one that focusses on Etruscan culture and, in particular, those from a region only twelve miles from the Tiber River, called Veii.
This story centres on the marriage of a young Roman woman named Caecilia who, to satisfy a treaty, is married to a nobleman from Veii, the wealthy and brave Mastarna. Thrust into an unfamiliar and enemy culture, aware she’s a pawn in a political game, Caecilia is terrified of losing her Roman-ness and fights hard to maintain her roots. However, Etruscan culture and rituals, their religion and treatment of others – particularly women whom they see as equals – differs so much from what she’d been raised to believe and fear and that’s before she considers the unexpected surprise that is her older husband.
Drawn into familial as well as social dramas of her new Etruscan society, Caecilia slowly learns that it’s not just Roman leaders prepared to use her for their own ends. But as time passes, she also starts to question where her loyalties actually lie…
This book was absolutely fascinating. The history and detail included in the story were riveting, but never at the expense of plot. On the contrary, all the little facts about life in these times, from the way the sexes were treated, class structure, dress, meals, religious rituals, modes of address, were all interwoven expertly throughout the narrative. Likewise, the setting is beautifully rendered. You see the citadel of the Veii, the frequent parties they indulge in, the manner of their rituals, just as you can envisage the landscape and changing seasons. It’s easy to tell that Storss not only knows this part of history well, but is passionate about it too, and that passion is infectious. I learned so much, but in that great way that good historical fiction can teach a reader, not by bashing you over the head with the amount of research the author has done, but gently through story-telling.
And what a story this is. Against a backdrop of enmity, political machinations and potential anarchy, Caecilia, for an educated woman, is also young in her. It’s quite one thing to be able to read and write, but she lacks experience, is headstrong, stubborn and tends to follow her head when it should be her heart and vice-a-versa. She’s a bag of trouble, but also believable. Annoying, but believable. Her opportunity for personal growth is constantly sabotaged by the doubts that others put into her head until she doesn’t know whom she should trust or why. Easy to understand when she’s been shoved into such an alien culture and way of being. She turns to the foundations upon which she was raised to anchor her, but often at great cost.
I look forward to learning how she develops in the later books and what Storrs has in store for her, the culture she was born into and that which she was forced to adopt.
If you enjoy historical fiction and are searching for something really different, then this could be the book for you.