Review: The Pleasure Slave by Jan Irving

Lucius Mettelus Carbo, once a legate on the rise in the Roman army, rescues a beautiful young prostitute, Varick, who immediately stirs him. However, Lucius doesn’t believe anyone could want him, a man cursed by the gods with an ugly, twisted leg. He resists his attraction to the pleasure slave as they forge a tempestuous relationship, and Varick tries to convince Lucius that he desires his master despite the injury. Both men are fighting their fears as they strive toward a future together… a future in the shadow of the volcano Mount Vesuvius.

Review by Erastes

I have to say up front, that however my review seems to indicate the opposite, I did enjoy reading this book, and I recommend it to anyone who likes the era.

The story takes place in Pompei, and a quick glance at the date (July 79AD) will set the scene immediately.  Volcano Day is on the way so we know our protags are going to be up against it.  However, sadly (and this is the second time in recent months that I’ve read an under representation of a cataclysmic eruption) the eruption, when it does come, is more of a damp squib than a OMG WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE and the escape seems a little too easy, considering the rain of death that was going on.

Whilst I liked both protagonists, it was difficult to cheer them along, as I didn’t know if they even knew what they wanted.  The emotions are kept very much in check, Lucius’ less so, but he keeps himself back because he doesn’t want to fall in love with a slave, and Varick’s point of view is only very lightly visited, so we don’t get into his head much at all. However, the romance is very readable, warm and arousing, and the sexual level worked well for the length of the book.  I did feel that they cared for each other and that they needed to learn to trust each other, something that didn’t come easy for either of them.

The history is good and solid–the author even makes a note that she has, for her own timeline purposes, moved the destruction of Lucius’ regiment a few years, but that’s forgiveable, the best of historical novelists do that.  I enjoyed the historical aspects of this book a lot, because I love learning things, and the history and destruction of Lucius’ regiment was fascinating. The descriptions of the town, the murals, the graffiti and the villas are convincing, and never once did I get jolted out of the story.

Historically, too, Lucius’ behaviour is very apt–he no longer considers himself a man. He’s injured, and therefore is no use (in his mind). His friends shun him and he hasn’t even taken prostitutes since his disfigurement because it reminds him of all the men and women he had – paid or otherwise – when he was whole.  The stigma of falling in love with a slave is well described too.  Shag your property by all means, but you run the risk of being laughed at if you become “indulgent with it.”

I never quite understood what happened to Lucius’ leg, though – it’s twisted and wasted but I’d have liked a bit more of what actually happened to him when he got lost during the Batavian rebellion.

It’s sometimes a frustrating read, because there seems to be something else going on under the surface which is never quite explained, and there are a couple of dialogue sections which entirely baffled me.  Perhaps it’s due to the length restriction, but I feel that if the book had been perhaps 50 pages longer, it would have felt more complete.

At 90 or so pages (yes, it says 99 but of course many of those are introduction, cover, bio etc) I would have expected a little more story for my story, but at $3.99 it’s a pleasant read which will certainly fill an hour of your life and although may not set your world on fire, it shouldn’t disappoint.

Buy from Dreamspinner Press

4 Responses

  1. The fire and ash wasn’t actually all that bad, but surviving a huge cloud of poisonous gas? How, run away? Where to? I’m not sure I’m buying that – but then, I’ve been in Pompeii, and it’s a death trap. The gas rolls downhill and moves faster than a galloping horse, according to what I remember, ten years later.

    Falling in love with a slave should be fine, as long as he’s your slave. Manumission, “letting him go free”, and pronto, he can still be part of the household. Now, if he’s *another man’s* property, that’s quite a different deal.

    I remain a little sceptical.

    • I don’t know – the writings I read seem to point to the fact that you would be shaming yourself hugely by falling in love with a slave – who is your inferior in every way – hardly human – and they had a real “face” civilisation. Free or otherwise. And LOL – yes, I know what manumission is. Excessive love – even of one’s own wife – was frowned upon, and you could be thought as effeminate or even homosexual if you displayed too much love. Pompey for example, was ridiculed as an effeminate lecher for loving his own wife. As I say, some people did escape the volcano, but it’s unlikely, sources say, that people escaped from the city itself – those who got away were on their way to the port, or on their way back to it.

  2. Addendum: even with modern means, escaping Pompeii during an outbreak of Vesuvius *today* would still rack up a huge bodycount (hence why they watch that vulcano so nervously – in geological tetrms, it’s overdue to break out again). It would take a terrific writer to make me buy that, but I’m totally anal about the period.

  3. I hope ‘Mettelus’ is just a typo in the blurb. I think I’ll give this one a go, just for mention of the Batavians.

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