A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: A slow-moving tale set in Roman Britain and Gaul that adheres to well-worn fannish tropes.
Lucius Valerius Carus isn’t naturally impulsive; when he suddenly and unexpectedly buys a slave at market it’s because he feels sorry for a man who has obviously been maltreated in the past. However he’s taken on far more than he bargained for with Keret—intelligent, educated, and a great deal stronger than he looks.
Roman society wouldn’t think twice about Lucius using Keret for his sexual pleasure—indeed, it would be astonished if he didn’t—but it’s likely to be horrified if it ever learns that Lucius has started to respect his slave, and absolutely disgusted if it discovers that he’s gradually beginning to fall in love…
As the blurb tells us, Lucius, a Romanised Gaul, is in the slave market one day when he sees a young man for sale. Lucius is the senior decurion of an auxiliary cavalry unit based in Britain; he’s about to return to his duties and isn’t looking to buy a slave. But when he sees one of his peers, Siccius Niger, ready to buy the young slave, Lucius decides to take action. He knows Niger is a cruel master, and the slave looks half-dead already. On impulse, Lucius buys the slave and takes him home—only to discover that his new purchase is very beautiful.
Lucius’ father was a philosopher who believed that slaves had rights and were more than simply property. Lucius has followed his father’s teachings and so treats his new slave, Keret, more as a companion than a servant. At first Keret is wary of his apparent good fortune, but when Lucius leaves him alone in the bedroom and starts to develop a genuine friendship with him, Keret opens up more and begins to trust.
In Britain, Lucius rejoins his troops and Keret proves how useful he is as more than a body-servant and potential pleasure-slave. Lucius’ men, rough Pannonian scoundrels with hearts of gold (I particularly liked Barius), protect Keret from various dangers and pull together when Lucius is seriously injured on a skirmish beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Keret nurses Lucius back to health, but before their relationship can blossom into love, first they must face an enemy from Keret’s past.
It was only when I re-read this book that I realised the full extent of the issues I had with it. On the face of it, the story is okay. It’s a long book, but I read it on holiday over a couple of evenings, so it was an easy read despite the length. The only jarring moment came at the end. Even the clichéd fandom tropes didn’t bother me too much. Re-reading it just now so I could write this review, I realised precisely why it had been so easy—because the whole book is told rather than shown.
The whole narrative is so passive, the book meanders by without ever really engaging the emotions. Things happen and people move on. There may be consequences, but we rarely see them. More things happen, and the characters go somewhere else, and apart from the place name, nothing’s changed. There’s very little description and very little attempt at anchoring the characters, let alone the readers, in a time and place. I can forgive that lack if the characters are strong and memorable, but even after 100,000 words Lucius is still a cipher and Keret is—I’m sorry to say this—a Marty-Stu.
Keret is from some unnamed tribe/region from the steppes beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, which makes him ‘exotic’. He has violet eyes. He’s beautiful. He’s young. He’s intelligent—he speaks and writes Greek and Latin and has a decent amount of medical knowledge learned as a boy. His knowledge saves Lucius and is helpful to another good characters. Apart from the baddies, who just want to humiliate or brutalise him, all the other characters love him. All the action focuses on him, even when he’s in the background. And he has a deeply traumatic past—aside from being captured and sold into slavery, his former master Didius Coelius raped him repeatedly, then passed him to an even worse master who lost him due to debts, and then Keret ended up in a brothel in Rome.
Possibly this list won’t bother readers unfamiliar with fandom tropes, but I’ve been in fandom a long time and I’ve never enjoyed the Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu stories. I heartily disliked Keret by the time I reached the end of the book, and I was sad that Lucius, who had such potential as a character, never really came into his own.
Lucius could have been really interesting. He fought in Judaea, he had a wife (now dead) and has a son (being raised elsewhere), and he’s been the leader of a troop of Pannonians for four years. He had so much potential, but it never happened. He’s just there to be Keret’s nice kindly owner/love-interest, to the extent that he’s a shadow of a character.
There’s also the issue of the deus ex machina solving their problems. One of my pet peeves is an evil character’s motivation revealed as ‘because he’s insane’. I can only buy this if the sickness/insanity is demonstrated in advance, so the removal of Siccius Niger from play was too convenient for me. Similarly convenient is the encounter with Didius Coelius. If they’d met him in Rome or another major city, it would have been a stretch but plausible; to encounter him on a road in Kent, though (without any explanation as to why he’d left Greece), was just too much. And the same again with Lucius’ bitchy mother, Cornelia. When she starts making trouble for Lucius and Keret, along comes a new character to remove her. Everything is just too convenient, and unfortunately the writing isn’t strong enough to justify it.
Then the book just ends. The first time I read it, I was so surprised I had to go back a few pages to make sure that was really it. I’ve read the ending a few times now and it’s still abrupt and odd. Perhaps the author intends on continuing Lucius and Keret’s story; I don’t know. Even so, it’s an unsatisfying ending.
Overall, this was a book that had the potential to be much better than it was. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend it.