For all the history buffs on campus, if you don’t already love learning about Ancient Rome, then Empress of the Seven Hills will pull you in. Personally, I’ve been bitten by the Rome-bug ever since reading it.
Just tell me that you aren’t hooked after reading this intro excerpt: “When I was thirteen, an astrologer told me I’d lead a legion someday, a legion that would call me Vercingetorix the Red. Astrologers are usually horseshit, but that funny little man was right about everything... But why didn’t that astrologer tell me any of the important things? Why didn’t he tell me that Emperors can be loved, but Empresses are only to be feared? Why didn’t he tell me I’d have to kill the best friend I ever had—on the orders of the worst man I ever knew? And why the hell didn’t he tell me about the girl in the blue veil I met the same day I got all these predictions?”
I expect that you’re now turning to your friend and telling them to read this, wondering how you’ve lived your life without picking this up yet. I hardly blame you.
I recently caught up with the writer of the series, Kate Quinn, who said of university, “I was a freshman in college when I wrote what was to become my first published book. I was 3000 miles away from home; I knew no one; so I escaped into ancient Rome instead.”
Empress of the Seven Hills, the first book I’ve read by Quinn, follows the life of an ex-gladiator, Vix, and Sabina, the enchanting daughter of a senator who knows that she wants adventure out of life (and how she can get it). The characters in this book are followed as they change, grow, and occasionally make some stupid decisions. Vix and Sabina inevitably form a romantic relationship, but in a very unconventional way. Vix is very crude, and he knows it. It makes it a joy to read his conversations, especially with Sabina, in which they can go back-and-forth. Despite their disagreements, one thing they can agree on is that they are both strongly devoted to an adored Emperor of the time, Trajan.
I assure you, the reader is pulled in to love Trajan and feel just as devoted to him, too. When asked if she’s heard of any common misconceptions about certain historical figures or events, Kate Quinn said, “Writing about the Borgia family has been an education in historical misconceptions. So many rumours swirl around them - the poison! the incest! the murders! - and yet, how much of it was true, and how much of it was bad press? It’s a novelist’s job to decide where you think the truth actually lies in all that storm of rumour.”
A character that actually surprised me was Titus, a man who knows that he isn’t handsome, but is very smart. He is a bit of an underdog, comparable to Neville Longbottom in Harry Potter. However, just as Neville surprises the audience, so does Titus. Be warned for the incredible cliff-hanger at the end that made me scream “THIS CAN’T BE IT,”making me realize that I had become invested in these characters’ lives without even knowing it.
This is a fast-paced book that continuously has new challenges and lots of action. I was able to learn so much about Rome itself, including both the political and social sides of things. Quinn is able to lavishly describe the politics of war and battle, from the grit of the soldiers in camp, to the work the captain’s had to do.
For someone who’s spun such witty stories, I asked, is writing novels something you always knew you were going to do? “I was writing novels since I was 10 years old,” Quinn said. “It wasn’t something I ever thought about; it was just something I did. I didn’t know that I’d end up writing novels for a living, but I knew I’d always write them whether I was paid for them or not. It’s a compulsion!”
The enemies that the heroes face are always reoccurring and very believable. This includes the schemes set up by the Empress (oh, I hated that woman), along with Hadrian, Vix’s mortal enemy (I felt like I was part of Vix’ posse whenever he managed to take a go at Hadrian). There is an angle for every side of the story, something that everyone can enjoy and become attached to.
So this raises the question, which historical Roman figure should the public know more about? “The middle three of the Five Good Emperors are all fascinating men, and yet they aren’t written about very much in historical fiction. We know about Marcus Aurelius, but the three men who came before him were titans: Trajan, who was such a war machine that he expanded Rome out to its widest-ever parameters, yet was so personally beloved he could walk around Rome without a bodyguard; Hadrian, an enigma wrapped in a mystery who fell in love with a commoner; and Antoninus Pius who appears to be the boy next door who somehow became the most powerful man in the world. I love all three of these men!”
I’ve probably got you flipping tables out of your way trying to find this book at a bookstore, but even if I don’t, I recommend that everyone pick up this book, either to continue your love for historical fiction, or to start it.
There are also so many shows based on Rome - I loved the Starz Spartacus series. Kate Quinn had some of her own suggestions: “HBO’s Rome is marvellous; the end of the Republic and the rise of the Empire as seen (sumptuously, violently, gorgeously) by two best-friend legionaries. And the mini-series I, Claudius, which introduced me to ancient Rome and which has held up magnificently to the test of time!”
Recently, Kate Quinn stepped away from Rome for a bit to explore the life of the Borgias in The Serpent and the Pearl, while the sequel to Empress of the Seven Hills is in the works.
The final question to ask would be, of course, what are some common misconceptions about authors? “I think the most common misconception about writers is the workload - that it just involves drinking coffee at Starbucks while doodling in a notebook and waiting for inspiration to strike! I work harder, longer hours at this job than I have in many offices: usually about five hours of writing, plus another three to four for research, business, and publicity. Being a writer is hard work, even if it’s also fun work!”