Rating: 4.5 out of 5
I receive some quirky books for review, works that don’t necessarily fit into any genre. Some are good, some are bad, some are just, well, strange. And some are this close to brilliant.
Which is where Roman Hell by Mark Mellon fits in.
Roman Hell is the story of Martial, a poet in first-century Rome. He’s a bit down on his luck until he gets an unusual offer from Titus, the acting Caesar. He is asked to spy on the intellectual circles he frequents, to see if there are whispered plots against his rule. For this, he will be paid handsomely.
Martial accepts the offer and along with an old-time legionary named Stilo sets about seeking information. During a chance encounter at a brothel, he spots Titus’ brother, Domitian, hurriedly leaving. He follows, only to find out that Domitian has been in cahoots with Canidia and Sagana, a pair of witches. Much clandestine spying ensues, with Martial and Stilo eventually learning that Domitian has arranged for his brother’s death so he will be granted the title of Princeps (Caesar).
Titus is eventually killed through magical means, Domitian takes over, double crosses Canidia, and is henceforth cursed to know the day his rule (and his life) ends. Martial, being a come-upper who latches on to those who may give him a better life (that being the new Caesar), is likewise cursed.
From there, the story jumps fifteen years into the future, chronicling how Domitian and Martial deal with the knowledge (or supposition – there are many instances, especially in Martial’s case, where he considers himself “superstitious” to believe in such nonsense as curses and magic) of their eventual fate. I won’t go into much more than that, because to do so would be to take away some of the best aspects of the storytelling, which include just how demented Domitian and Martial’s thought processes can be.
For the most part, the characters in this tale are fantastic. The only problem is that there are a lot of them.
Martial is one of the most original I’ve read in a long time, the obvious “hero” of the piece, yet so un-heroic that he become a caricature – or, more pertinent, a living metaphor for the pursuit of comfort. He wants nothing more than to have an easy life and be appreciated for his talents, two aspects that have been denied him. He is a moral man by the standards of the day (he can see, and his inner monologue often derides, the debauchery that goes on around him), and yet he gladly turns the other way when he sees behavior that is, ahem, objectionable.
Domitian is fantastically fleshed out, as well. His transformation from lazy, freeloading brother to paranoid leader is beautiful to see. It makes sense and is consistent with his mental framework that he would seek outside providence from magical beings in order to obtain his goal. He is, as I said, lazy…at least early on. But once he becomes Caesar, and his thirst for power grows, no one puts forth more effort when it comes to trying to steer public affection his way.
However, one character completely steals the show, and that’s Stilo, Martial’s legionary bodyguard. He’s an archetypal tough guy, from his scarred visage to his love of violence, and yet he differs in his poetic (and often hilarious) manner of speech. Unfortunately he disappears a little over halfway through the book (you’ll have to read it to find out why – it’s a fantastic and unexpected development), and in a way the second half falters the slightest bit without him.
Author Mellon did something very interesting with this novel. He uses real events and real historical figures as a skeleton and lets his imagination become the muscle and flesh. This works wonderfully, and drives the story to its inevitable end with pomp and vigor. Luckily for Mellon, I’m pretty sure not too many folks know the history of Domitian’s rule, because in that way the final outcome is a bit of a mystery. That being said, even if one who’s well versed in Roman history were to read this, they’d still come away with something fresh and surprising, for the author does a more than decent job of throwing you right smack in the middle of the first century and bending events to fit his vision. The language is there, the sights are there, and ancient Rome comes alive.
In fact, this is done so well that it can be somewhat of a drawback. I said at the beginning of this review that it’s this close to brilliance, and the reason I say this is because as a book, Roman Hell is almost too smart for its own good. Mellon is obviously a very talented writer and knows his history, but the proliferation of ancient terms, names, and locations can make for confusing reading for those who aren’t familiar with such language. Even this reviewer was a bit thrown off. Add to this the fact that the text is dense, and it becomes easy to lose one’s place.
Nevertheless, you shouldn’t be discouraged by this, for if the reader simply trudges their way through to the other side, there is something wonderful to be had. Roman Hell is an intense gender-bender – part horror, part fantasy, part comedy, all historical – that snatches your eye and holds you in place with its almost lyrical prose. It says something quite profound about the societies of old and their likes, fetishes, and tendencies, as well, presenting us with a vision of old Rome without the charm of time and distance. For myself, I had no choice but imagine what my life would be like in the rancid armpit of that ancient city, struggling to simply survive and taking pleasure from the intense suffering of others. That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment.
On the whole, I think Roman Hell is a truly original and enjoyable book. It may take a bit of work to get into, but once you do, you won’t be able to look at the culture of Ancient Rome the same way ever again. And by the last melancholy scene, you’ll ask yourself the most philosophical of questions: what good have I done in my life, anyway?
I know I did.
Plot - 9
Characters - 9
Voice - 10
Execution - 8
Personal Enjoyment – 9
Overall – 45/50 (4.5/5)
Buy this book: