Review: Abominations by Paul R Brenner

The year is 68 CE. Led by the fanatical Sicarii, the ideological dagger men, Jews seize Jerusalem, execute the Roman garrison, and begin to cleanse Judaea of all impurities and foreign influences, including Greek love. Nero sends Vespasianus with three legions to quell the revolt. Caught in this conflict is the Sacred Community of Men, whose leader is the man who was Jesus’ lover, and Joanna, in whose home was held the Last Supper with Jesus. To escape assassination, Jesus’ beloved flees Judaea for cosmopolitan Alexandria, where he has been accepted as a Visiting Scholar in the famous Temple of the Muses, the Mouseion. Within days of arriving in the city, fierce ethnic fighting breaks out between Greeks and Jews, disrupting his life and plans. Further complicating his life is Markos, the sexy, wealthy young Greek, who wants a relationship with him, Hakor, the young orphaned Egyptian boy whom he befriends, and Diokles, Director of Visiting Scholars, who takes more than an intellectual interest in him. He senses he is being followed without being able to identify by whom. When he and his friends are viciously attacked, they discover the Sicarii have him marked for assassination. Finally, to end the chaos, Tiberius Alexander, Governor of Egypt, recalls the legion from fighting bandits in the south of Egypt. As they attack the quarter, our hero is trapped and comes face to face with a Roman centurion with drawn bloody sword eager to kill. Will he survive?

Review by Erastes

It’s taken me a while to review this book because I wanted to be as fair as I possibly could be. At first I was mildly excited because although there are a couple of Jesus gay books they are more erotica than historical fiction. Abominations is very “closed bedroom door” which was an approach I liked and would have left room for the plot.

That is, if there had been a plot. I kept reading and reading in the hopes that some kind of plot would manifest itself, but sadly it simply didn’t. It’s simply a book about a bloke who travels about, meets people and does stuff. Content doesn’t equal plot.

It’s set about 30 years after Jesus (called Joshua in this) was killed and it covers some of his friends and disciples as they come to terms with his death and how the world is getting to know about him and how everyone has a different take on “who he was.” This, I found interesting. Even if Jesus was just a normal person, albiet wise and charismatic, there was going to be some confusion afterwards as gradually more and more people claimed to know who he was and what he stood for. This is illustrated well, as the groups of people grow and split apart as their opinions differ.

There’s an awful lot of theology in this, and I’m afraid I know nuffin’ about theology and religious history so whether the facts–or even the myths discussed–are accurate, I simply couldn’t tell you. I admit that I was taking it all on faith (scuse the pun) that Bremmer knew what he was talking about when a couple of large mistakes hoved into view and then I started to doubt it all. Someone with more knowledge than I would know whether there was a Sacred Community of Men (and one of women) and what they stood for etc. I admit I was a bit lost in this respect.

What jarred me more than anything was the entirely modern feel to the book. Now, I’m not expecting people to be speaking Greek, or Aramaeic or anything like that, but these characters were speaking “2011 San Francisco” as far as I could see, and you could pick any of them up by their “fabulous, darlings!” and transplant them to Castro and they would simply fit right in. No, I didn’t want everyone to be thee-ing and thou-ing, but I find it unlikely that everyone would be quite as flaming as they are depicted here.

Everyone is gay, too. Simply everyone. Everyone the narrator meets fancies him, or makes a pass, or leers over him, or offers himself up. He’s simply irresistible, it seems. The librarian is gay, all the soldiers they meet, chance encounters on ships and in cafes (in fact there are gay bars, for goodness sake) There’s a thriving gay community where everyone seems to know everyone else.  It was this very gay community (in Alexandria) that gave me misgivings, because I had read a lot about the Greek attitude to homosexuality and it didn’t strike me that it was particularly OKHOMO to this degree. Yes, men were considered to be the best teachers of the young (heaven forbid the women would be allowed to do it, after all as they weren’t really allowed out of the house that much) but an erastes/eromenos relationship was pretty unequal when it came down to it, the erastes being older and allegedly wiser. Here the men pair off according to whim and attraction–and love–and live together as easily as… men living in San Francisco. As far as I was aware men did not carry on homosexual relationships with men of equal age, in fact it was quite frowned upon.

The prose is fairly regular througout, despite the modern feel to it which jarred me on a basic level on just about every page. But the first major love-making scene (which, as I said above, are non-explicit) was so bloody hilariously written I ended up snorting tea out of my nose.

Here’s a snippet of the first part of it (and it goes on for several pages of my Kindle after this):

…our mouths open to each other, and all that has been

detoured, denied, disrupted,

unspoken, unapproached, untouched, unfilfilled, undone

erupts

in an

enmeshing, entwining, enwrapping, engulfing, enflaming

frenzy

of

touching, tasting, tonguing, teghtening, twisting,

savoring, sucking, swallowing, sliding, squeezing, squishing…

Hmm.

Add to all of this that the author got the erastes and the eromenos muddled up and presents the erastes as the younger partner, rather than the younger plus the fact the sailing ships (in first century AD) had portholes when they weren’t invented until the 16th century, –  and you’ll begin to see why I was doubting the research into the rest of it.

Continuing with the language, the author has attempted to flavour his book by chucking in Greek (and probably other, but it’s not explained what language they are) words at a fairly regular rate and at times it was intrusive and annoying, particularly with the over-modern language used throughout, and the “As you know, Bob” translations to phrases spoken. There’s quite a lot of “As you know, Bob” throughout as the backstory is explained which made me grind my teeth.

What I did like, though, despite my entire non-belief in the entire affair–was the way it made me think about the way word would have spread about Jesus after his death and how that people would shape the stories around him, even from the word go (let alone how they have been twisted 2000 years later.)  It’s clear from much of the book — and from the postscript — that the author has done a great deal of research, but whether he has actually portrayed first century Alexandria with any conviction, I really don’t know. Personally if you have any expertise in the era, I would be very interested to know your view on it, should you read it. It’s worth a look, I would say, for its rarity value. But it left me puzzled to be honest.

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Review: Gaius and Achilles by Clodia Metelli

Gaius and Achilles is a gay historical romance, set in Late Republican Rome, concerning the choices facing Achilles, a young aristocrat from Paphos whose life is thrown into confusion when he is captured by pirates and separated from his lover Hippothous.

He finds himself the slave of decadent Roman poet Gaius Manlius Torquatus, a sensitive soul, who must struggle with the conflicting demands and desires of his nature.

Achilles’ radical change in status from respected citizen to personal property forces him to struggle to redefine his threatened sense of self and ultimately to question what it is to be free.

Meanwhile, his lover Hippothous is facing his own perilous adventures and is determined to find and save Achilles at any cost.

Review by Michael Joseph

It’s not often anymore that a book catches me completely by surprise, taking turns that you just don’t expect an historical romance to take. “Gaius and Achilles” surprised me, and I don’t mind saying right up front it was quite a pleasant surprise.

We’re first briefly introduced to Achilles and Hippothous, two aristocratic Greek youths of Paphos, on the island of Crete. The two young friends consider themselves lovers, although Hippothous would prefer the relationship conform to Platonic ideals, while Achilles yearns for greater physical expression. The men are both selected to compete in the Pythian games, and set sail along with the cream of the island’s youth for Delphi. Unfortunately, they’re set on by pirates, taken captive and sold into slavery in Italy.

When we first meet Gaius, he’s whipping a slave boy, only it’s not really a slave, it’s his boyfriend Antyllus, and he likes it. Or, maybe he doesn’t. Antyllus was once a slave, but now he’s a free man with a successful acting career. Unfortunately, he’s a sadly damaged and self-destructive young man who can’t seem to stop playing mind games with his boyfriend Gaius (sigh, been there). Gaius is almost driven mad by his young lover’s mercurial temperament, but finally wises up and resolves to part company with Antyllus.

Gaius escapes to his country estate, which he hasn’t visited since he was a boy. His uncle, who raised Gaius when his parents died, used to look after the vineyard for Gaius but he has now passed away, leaving Gaius with the responsibility to look after the business which provides his income. Soon after his arrival, the estate is embroiled in turmoil. It seems the steward, Rufus, has purchased a new slave who is quite unruly, and has even tried to escape. Rufus wants to whip the slave into submission, but the more Gaius hears, the more concerned he becomes and so he asks to see the slave for himself.

The slave is, of course, Achilles and under questioning it becomes clear that Rufus has purchased the young man, at considerable expense using Gaius’ money, to act as his own personal sex slave. Achilles quite naturally balked at this. Rufus had, quite wrongly, assumed his new master would be some addle-brained upper class twit. Once he figures out what is really going on, Gaius has Rufus quite literally peeing his toga.

Gaius takes pity on Achilles, and tries to more gently ease him into his new life as a slave. He makes the young man is personal servant and treats him with respect. He is also strongly attracted sexually to Achilles, but Gaius has a surprisingly strong moral code, especially for a Roman. He won’t take any man, even a slave, without their willing consent. So, he sets about wooing Achilles, which doesn’t prove difficult. The young man, in spite of himself, is also attracted to his new master. Gaius gives the beautiful youth the physical expression of love that’s long been denied him, and allows Achilles to explore the darker desires he’s long suppressed. This is where things get really interesting, but Achilles can’t give himself totally to Gaius. He pines for his lost lover Hippothous, whose fate remains unknown to him, and he still rebels at the idea of his enslavement.

“Gaius and Achilles” is set at the very end of the republic (that’s the Roman republic, dears, this isn’t Star Wars fanfic). Julius Caesar is as yet an up-and-coming young politician, mentioned a few times in the story. The author, apparently writing under a pen name taken from the time of the setting, seems to be a serious student of the Greco-Roman period and has woven a rich background for the story. There are vivid details about the daily life of a country villa. Everything, right down to the foods eaten at every meal, rings true to me. It’s all delivered in a very readable style that never becomes pedantic.

The historic detail alone makes this a very capable story, but it’s the relationship between Gaius and Achilles that really sets this book apart as something entirely unique in my experience. Many ‘serious’ historical romances – those not intended simply as one-handed reads – often tread quite lightly when it comes to sex. Even when they do get descriptive, the sex is often rather vanilla. The depictions of sex between Gaius and Achilles is quite unabashedly detailed and erotic. But what really pushed it over the edge into something completely different, what made me stop and think “wow” when I realized where it was going, is that the sex between the two men moves quite firmly into the realm of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sado-Masochism). That was really just totally unexpected in a historical romance set in ancient Rome. Non-consensual sex in a master/slave relationship is one thing, but consensual BDSM is quite another.

It took me a little while to see what the author was doing. This isn’t all about shock and titillation. What the writer manages to do is set up a rather exquisite tension between the two sides of Achilles’ personality. On the one hand, there’s his public persona, the free-born Greek aristocrat who can’t wrap his head around now being a slave, someone’s property, with no control over what happens to him. On the other hand is Achilles’ private self, with a sexuality at its core that has an strong need to serve a master. He finds strength in submission, and joy in the pain of a whipping. It’s the tension between these two opposites that sets the theme of the story.

It’s in the description of the BDSM scenes that I found the closest thing to a flaw in the book. There was something rather ‘modern’ about the scenes – safe words, boundaries and limits are openly discussed. These things are very important to the story, in making Achilles feel comfortable enough to submit to Gaius’ domination, but they still felt somewhat out of place in ancient Rome. Although the Romans left plenty of documentation about what they got up to in bed, I doubt we have the level of detail to know if they understood the importance of safe words. This wasn’t one of those things that jars you out of the story, it was more a slow realization, and frankly, once I noticed it I simply overlooked it and read on. It doesn’t really detract from the story.

In then end, I felt the author was acting rather more responsibly than most. I do read a fair bit of BDSM, and even review it for another site. A lot of what gets labeled as BDSM really isn’t. It’s non-consensual sex, sexual torture and even outright mutilation. In “Gaius and Achilles” the author has shown how two (or more) consenting adults can engage in extreme sex safely. She probably could have glossed over some of the safety details without detracting from the story, but I think it actually becomes more powerful the way it is.

Hippothous is not completely forgotten in all this. He’s constantly in the background, forming a wedge between Gaius and Achilles. We get regular updates on his adventures as well. He is first sold to a brothel, but he fakes a seizure his first night on duty and is promptly resold, this time to a merchant with need of a Greek scribe. This at first seems a more suitable position, but his talent soon lands him in trouble with the senior slave, who frames the lad for theft to get him out of the way. While awaiting his fate, which will be whipping, or worse, Hippothous is allowed to escape by his master’s daughter and soon falls in with a gang of bandits.

It becomes quite obvious early on that, for the story to resolve itself, Achilles and Hippothous have to meet again. When they do, Achilles is forced to choose between his friend and his lover, between the freedom of Paphos with it’s moral restrictions and life as a slave to Gaius allowed to explore his innermost desires. It’s not much of a choice, really.

This book pushed a lot of my buttons, and more importantly, it pushed a combination of buttons I don’t expect a single story to push. That said, I realize this book is not going to appeal to everyone. In fact, I suspect it’s going to be one of those stories that people either love or hate. There won’t be much middle ground. If you have a taste for extreme sex, you’ll probably like this book. If too much sex in a book is a turn-off, just don’t read it.

I decided to give “Gaius and Achilles” 4.5 stars. The main reason I’m not giving it 5 stars is that, while it’s a ripping good yarn, it didn’t really tug at my heart-strings (although other bits got fondled). There’s nothing I can really put my finger on to account for this, the characters are well rounded and likable. I suspect it’s down to the remoteness of the time and circumstances. I just couldn’t get into the head of an ancient Roman or Greek aristocrat, and I certainly have absolutely no frame of reference for what it’s really like to be a slave, with absolutely no control over what happens to me. Others might get into it more easily, and really be tugged by Achilles’s situation, so I don’t consider this a real failing of the book.

Clodia Metelli’s web site

“Gaius and Achilles” may be purchased from Smashwords or Kindle (ebook only)

Historical Call For Submissions – Riptide Publishing

Riptide Publishing

Warriors of Rome

Help us launch our Historical Warriors line with gay and trans stories about warriors during the time of the Roman Empire. Stories can focus on Rome (from the Eternal City to its provinces), or on Rome’s enemies. Explore barracks life with Roman legionaries and their officers, or follow Germanic tribes and Gauls as they rise up against the invaders. Let us fight alongside the Persians and Carthaginians, or join forces as auxiliaries and allies with the glory of Rome.

Of course, soldiers weren’t the only ones to take up arms. Gladiators fought and often died for the entertainment of the masses. So too did slaves to earn their freedom, and simple farmers to protect their land against the Roman invaders. We’d love to hear their stories, as well.

We’re seeking historicals for this call, which means research is crucial. Our editors will only select stories that are faithful to the period in which they are set. If you use paranormal elements or magical realism, be sure they fit into the time period; conquerors and conquerees alike have their superstitions, of course, and we welcome those elements as secondary—but not primary—foci in your submissions. All levels of eroticism are welcome and erotic content is encouraged, but sex is no substitute for the plot, character, and worldbuilding we’re seeking for this call.

Length: 25,000 to 35,000 words -OR- 50,000+ words
Genres: Historical (some supernatural elements allowed)
Heat Levels: Any
Ending: Any
Orientation: Gay or trans
Submissions Due: May 15, 2012
Acceptance Letters Sent By: July 1, 2012 for novellas, July 15, 2012 for novels
Anticipated Release Date: December 2012

Submission Instructions

All manuscripts should be complete, and edited and polished to the best of your ability. Please send the following submission package to submissions@riptidepublishing.com:

  • A query letter containing the title, genre(s), word count, and orientation of your story; a one- to two-paragraph “sales pitch” (like the blurbs you see on the back cover of a book); and a brief history of your publication, if any.
  • A two- to three-page synopsis of your story from start to finish. Do not leave out the ending!
  • Your completed manuscript.

Please paste the query letter directly into your email, and attach the synopsis and manuscript as .rtf files. We have no specific formatting requirements, but please be sensible and remember that if the editor has a hard time reading your submission, he or she simply won’t.

You’ll receive an automated email confirming our receipt of your submission. Due to the large volume of submissions anticipated, we regret to say rejections cannot be personalized. If your story is rejected, please do not write the editor asking why; such emails will not be answered.

Review: Gladiators #1: House of Simeon by D J Manly

Gold was the unbeatable champion of the House of Simeon but after the gods foretell his death, his master refuses to put him into the arena again. Instead, he makes Gold his trainer, and uses his body for his own pleasure.

Gold wants nothing more than to fight again. It is all he knows, and he hates the fact that people think he is a coward, hiding behind his master. He longs for a death of glory in the arena, the only respectable way for a gladiator slave to leave this world.

Samson comes into Gold’s life unexpectedly. A slave with potential to rise through the ranks, but also the first man who has been able to rouse something inside of him he thought was dead.

Can Samson make Gold reveal his feelings, or will he remain the unattainable trainer who longs for a glorious death?

Review by Erastes

The trouble I found with this, that it was like reading an episode of the TV show Spartacus. Now, I don’t know when this was written, although it was published in 2010. It may have been written a long time before Spartacus hit our screens, but it’s unfortunate in that case for the author because so much of Spartacus is mirrored here. Gold is in the place of Oenameaus, the Doctore (trainer) in the show. He’s an ex-gladiator and his master doesn’t want him to fight any more and Gold resents that, just like the Doctore does. There’s a champion, and a possible up and coming champion. There’s a resentful son. In fact there’s much that’s derivative but in a way, that’s also to be expected. I don’t suppose ludi (the gladiator schools) were that different from each other.

The story, whilst familiar, isn’t bad. It’s certainly readable and if you like gladiator stories you’ll like this. It just didn’t sing for me.

Regarding the characters, Gold is one of these characters who EVERYONE in the world wants to shag. Obviously his fans from the arena, but his owner wants to shag him too, his owner’s wife ditto, the son, every single gladiator, the house servants, even rival gladiator owners. It gave the impression that he was of more use as a sex slave than a gladiator. And frankly, I couldn’t see what everyone saw in him. We are told he’s gorgeous, but other than his black hair and hugely muscled abs (yes, they get called abs, too) I couldn’t see the attraction. Yes, he’d get people who wanted to fuck him because he was a star (albeit waning) but he was a veritable iceberg and at least two of the other testosterone laden-cut-your-head-off-soon-as-look-at-you were sighing over their oatmeal in love with him. And as so often is the case, everyone (aside from the women) have homosexual tendencies, or are entirely homosexual.

Which leads me to the girly glads. The ones who show feelings seem altogether rather romantic for the setting they are in. I’m not saying relationships weren’t formed even in such horrible circumstances,but one particular gladiator spends more time swooning and hardening over his amore than he does actually worrying that he could be dead in a day or so. The love story wasn’t convincing, either. One moment Gold is all “I have no heart” and then he’s “I love him” and there really wasn’t enough interaction between the two to give this any kind of reality. Granted they had a couple of quick tumbles, but the communication between them both didn’t seem likely to have such passionate attachment. Your mileage may vary, I know.

There’s plenty of hot sweaty gladiator sex here, if that’s your bag, but my main problem with it is that most of it was rape. You might wave your finger at me and say “oh, surely, it’s only non-consensual isn’t it?” But no. Non con = rape and the fact that a slave submits to the abuse doesn’t change it from being wrong to being “Ok for titillation.” I didn’t like the rape scenes at all, and presented as erotica, I liked them even less. I suspect, having read the first section of Book 2, this is also going to be a big problem for me.  Present the full-blown rape penetrative scenes as veiled flashbacks and concentrate on the consensual stuff, specially in a romance. Save the other for mainstream fiction.

Rating “e-taboo”—I didn’t like this, because there’s nothing here that’s taboo. No-one’s shagging goats, or their sisters. Yes, there’s rape but others would call it non-con and say slave sex was not rape. But rating it taboo simply perpetrates the idea that gay sex is naughty and wrong. Need I go on?

Language – not bad. There’s no attempt, thank goodness to go and write it in translated Latin, like the Spartacus show, and the modern speech didn’t bother me all that much. But one or two instances did — e.g “I don’t know what makes him tick.” Really? What ticked in Roman times? I could gloss over a lot of the modern language, after all if we translated everyday speech from Roman times it would of course be colloquial, but if i’d been editing this, I would have suggested phrases that suited the time.

Talking of editing, it was pretty shoddy. Typing errors all over the place, e.g. trial for trail, Gracie at least 3 times for Gracia which made me chuckle—and homonyms such as discretely and discreetly being muddled. The POV needed a lot of tightening up, too as several chapters began in third person and then slipped into first which was disorienting and annoying.

But despite my catalogue of quibbles, it was very readable, and I read to the end, gripped by the story and worrying about the characters enough to enjoy the read in general. I’m looking forward to reading the next one despite the problems I know I’m going to have with it.

Author Website

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Review: The Soldier of Raetia: Valerian’s Legion by Heather Domin

Rome, 10BC. New soldier Manilus Dardanus is sent to apprentice under General Cassius Valerian in the hope of securing a military sponsorship. Dardanus is idealistic and naive, Valerian brusque and restrained – but each soon discovers the other is not what he expected. In the legion Dardanus finds purpose and strength; in Dardanus, Valerian finds hope. This bond will be tested on the northern frontier, as Valerian and Dardanus each realize the true nature of their connection just as war and betrayal threaten to end it – and possibly their lives.

Review by Gerry Burnie

Although my specialty is Canadian history, I have a great appreciation for all history, and I certainly bow to Heather Domin’s knowledge of Augustinian Rome, as demonstrated in “The Soldier of Raetia: Valerian’s Legion.

I also like her writing style. She provides just the right amount of description to make both characters and settings vivid without slowing the pace. The characters are also well developed and distinctive although I did find Elurius and Pertinax somewhat similar in nature. This applies to their respective relationships with Dardanus and Valerian, as well. The author has also made very good use of dialogue (very credible), without being contrived.  What I liked most, however, was that the story builds to a climax gradually—like an orgasm—and the climax was gratifying.

The synopsis of the story is that young Manilus Dardanus has come to Rome at his father’s insisstance. The father has arranged an introduction to the wealthy and illustrious general Marcus Cassius Valerian, who commands Augustus Caesar’s twenty-fourth legion. Crusty General Valerian is hardened by battle and tragedies of the past, and at first assumes that Dardanus is like the other sons of sycophants who have sought his favour—i.e. with the idea of an adoption in mind. Despite these reservations, valerian gives him a place within his household and arranges for him to be trained as a soldier. Theirs is an awkward relationship, but in spite of this they both undergo significant changes; Valarian re-discovers deeply buried emotions within himself, and Dardanus grows from a callow boy to a self-sufficient man. He also discovers friendships bonded from hard work and the heat of battle, as well as loyalty asa soldier and for his idol, Valerian.

Having said all that, I had some minor reservations. I certainly bow to Ms Domin’s knowledge of Roman history, but did they travel in carriages (I mean the four-wheel variety) is 10BC Rome? I don’t know, but it seemed at little ‘modern’ to me. Their were some other anachronisms aswell, For example, the phrases “working his ass off,” and “Cut them off at the pass,” also seem a bit modern. However, these certainly didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the story.

Highly recommended. 

This review was originally posted on Gerry B’s reviews

Author’s website

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Review: Eromenos by Melanie McDonald

Eros and Thanatos converge in this story of a glorious youth, an untimely death, and an imperial love affair that gives rise to the last pagan god of antiquity, Antinous.

In this coming-of-age novel set in second century Rome, the Greek youth Antinous of Bithynia recounts his seven-year affair with Hadrian, the fourteenth Roman emperor. In a partnership more intimate than Hadrian’s political marriage, Antinous captivates the most powerful ruler on the earth.

This version of the story of the emperor and his beloved ephebe envisions the life of the youth who after death achieved apotheosis as a pagan god whose cult of worship lasted for hundreds of years, and gives voice to Antinous, whose image still appears in museums around the world.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

There are plenty of books in the genre that are a struggle to read even once. Even more aren’t worth being read more than once. There’s nothing left to discover, and I delete these off my reader without regrets. Then there are books like “Eromenos” by Melanie McDonald, which I read twice to be able to review it, and will very likely read a couple more times. (This from somebody who rarely, if ever, re-reads fiction books – non-fiction is a different matter.)

What made Eromenos so compelling for me was the style and the authenticity. Frankly, few authors in the genre write as well as McDonald, and even fewer look behind the mask of their characters, so when you find a book like that, it’s a rare ray of sunlight in what threatens to be fairly drab and mediocre world – at least when I despair over the genre, as I sometimes do and every time I read a bad book that somehow got published.

Here’s one of the rare gems that make it worthwhile. And if “Eromenos” is a gem, it’s an opal. Glittering depths and sparks of light and brilliance, a complex array of meaning that is great to discover a first time, even better the second time around, and strong enough to earn a permanent space on my bookshelf.

On the surface, it’s another novel (or short novel/novella, it’s pretty short at under 180 pages in the formatting on my e-reader, of which around 30 pages are appendices and intro) about Antinous, the Greek favourite of Roman emperor Hadrian. It’s the second Antinous novel I’ve read (after Gardiner’s “Hadrian Enigma” and it’s fascinating how different the two books are.

McDonald’s book is written in first person from the view of Antinous just before he commits suicide. The mysterious death of the emperor’s lover on the cusp of manhood has always intrigued historians and writers, and every one has found his or her own solution. In this case, it’s suicide.
But it’s more than that (so I’m not really giving away the twist of the story here). It’s a short memoir where we learn about Antinous’s youth in Bythinia, his training, how Hadrian chose him, and about life at court. It’s not a historical romance by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not an erotic romance. Sex is hinted at and more or less symbolic. Hadrian must have what Hadrian wants, and as the most powerful man of his time, who would deny him?

At the same time, Antinous knows about the vulnerabilities of the great man, and plays dumb to survive the power struggles at court. He’s not a player, he’s not a pawn, he’s an outsider in a very privileged position and defined as “Hadrian’s favourite.”

In this is the true tragedy of the character. He’s defined as Hadrian’s lover, and yet about to lose his position (as he’s getting too old, and while it’s fine for an emperor to take a boy or youth as a lover, it’s unseemly to have a man as a consort). And once the emperor has severed those ties, where else does he have to turn to? What else could he possibly be? From the dizzying heights he has climbed (or rather, has been elevated to due to his good looks and a healthy portion of luck), anything after that would be a fall and descent into anonymity and insignificance.

The tragedy is that because of Hadrian, Antinous can’t be Antinous. He can’t discover who he really is, because he is the emperor’s consort. But even without Hadrian, he’ll only be the ex-consort. Who and what he is beyond that is the question that makes suicide such a tempting option. He can be tied forever to Hadrian, becomes eternal in joining – according to the magical thinking of the time – his lifeforce with that of the Emperor and prolong his life.

The memoir we read is that search for identity, which ask these questions. Who could I be? Who could I have been? And many of those questions have no answers. The search for these answers is what defines Antinous in the book – he is a cypher, both for historians and writers and for himself. The suicide makes him even more that.

If that makes it sound like a self-pitying, whining book, it’s not. It’s an earnest quest for identity and purpose (this is where the authenticity comes in). The book is literary in style and depth, and treats both the history and sexual mores of the time with great respect. There’s a lot of research in this, both how a man of the times would frame things, what he’d refer to and how he’d express himself.

References to mythology and history firmly ground the character in history. The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous is an unequal one. An eromenos is the beloved, and the junior partner to an erastes, supposedly to be taught and prepared to become a man, but ultimately, it’s not the equal partnership of two men that romantic love would suggest. And while there’s fondness and affection in the text, I don’t read Antinous as being romantically in love with Hadrian. He was clearly infatuated and loved him during the early stages of the relationship, but that emotion is tempered and changes into something else during the telling.

And how could Antinous, now more mature, really truly deeply madly love Hadrian? In the end, he is “just” the consort. He plays his role because that’s his duty, he’s been chosen, but he’s never an equal partner and can’t possibly be. Hadrian calls all the shots.

Here’s a small piece of text from the start:

“When I was six, wandering about the cook’s garden behind our villa, I discovered a field mouse dead in a thicket of berry brambles as high as my waist. Gazing at those translucent claws, his fur the color of bark and stone, I wondered how he came to be suspended there between earth and sky, like a tiny Antaeus. Maybe he had climbed up to escape one of our cats or wriggled loose from the talons of a hawk or owl only to drop down and become entangled in those thorns he mistook for his salvation. Perhaps he had been summoned there by Apollo Smynthius, Lord of field mice and the plague, my favourite god in the story of the Greek war against the Trojans.

Studying the creature’s unnatural position, my wonder turned to pity, for death had left him in a state of indignity. Heedless of the bramble spines that scored my forearms, I reached into the thicket to dislodge him, an effort frustrated by the clumsiness of my childish fingers. I carried him away and deposited him on solid ground at last beneath a rosebush, where his tiny stink bothered no one as he returned to the soil.

I wondered if mice went to Hades, and imagined their tiny shades scrabbling about among the tall ones of famous men.”

This little piece foreshadows the whole book – the similarity of the names – Antaeus and Antinous – is hardly accidental. And Antinous, too, writing this just before he dies, is suspended between earth and sky. Compared to Hadrian, the “famous man”, he’s nothing but a field mouse.

It’s layers like this that make the book such a joy. While eminently readable, historically accurate, there are depths to discover, symbols, foreshadowings, and it’s all written beautifully, too, which made this a five star read for me.

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Happy Faunalia!


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