Friday, January 24, 2014

The Legate's Daughter by Wallace Breem

I found The Legate's Daughter to be an intriguing read.  Wallace Breem departs from his first book, Eagle in the Snow, which shows in intimate detail the skills and character needed to head an Ancient Roman legion at the border of the Empire.  Instead, The Legate's Daughter shows in intimate detail the skills and characters needed to run a diplomatic mission at the edge of the Ancient Roman Empire, in North Africa.

The reader is put in the position of a diplomat, someone who must collect gossip, read people, and read between the lines in this third-person narrated novel.  Nothing is spelled out for the reader.  We must move along with the characters and try to cipher out the truth, the good guys and the bad guys from the events, glances, words, sighs, and chance encounters.  The book is written in the 3rd person limited style.  We get into our protagonist's head, mainly, and a bit into the heads of those around him, especially his best friend.

The Plot 

The protagonist is Curtius Rufus.  He is spotted by Maecenas, a real-life master diplomat, and by Marcus Agrippa, a real-life soldier and administrator, who has had to rely on Maecenas's diplomatic skills more then once.  Both men are Octavian Augustus Caesar's friends and co-rulers of the Roman Empire in a sort of triumvirate.  The two men tutor Curtius, then send him on a delicate and impossible mission:  to recover the daughter of a Roman patrician and senator, who has been taken by force from Spain and who is likely hidden somewhere in North Africa.

The Protagonist 

Mr. Breem has created in Curtius Rufus a whole character, full of contradictions, talents, weaknesses and all the natural skills needed by a diplomat who has to deal with the tribes at the edge of the Roman Empire:  guile, intuition, sharp reasoning, people reading, languages, gossip mongering, seduction, conversation that convinces and that induces confidence, patience, tactical tricks, leadership, sacrifice, friendship, loyalty. 

Curtius is a man in a man's world, but he also understands those at the weak end of the harsh society:  the slaves (his father was one, and bought his freedom with his winnings from being a charioteer), the freedmen (he is one), the Roman outsiders (his best friend is one), the women (his greatest skill is his ability to seduce and please women).

It is possible that Mr. Breem created his main character with the historian/politician Quintus Curtius Rufus, sometimes called Curtius Rufus, in mind.  The Roman writer Tacitus tells us what little we know about Rufus, and it fits very closely with Mr. Breem's character, in moody temperament and ambitious new-man status, which was a self-made man from obscure birth.

That would mean that Mr. Breem's Rufus goes on after the end of the book to have a very long life and career leading to a Praetorship, a Consulship, a Triumph (not for military triumphs but for commercial ones), and as a writer, and lastly as Proconsul of Africa, where he presumably died, a very old man.  This is important because just references are made to this future, without actually telling us this will be his future.  Knowing this adds another level of enjoyment to the book.

The Period Detail 

The book is rich with period detail, so rich that it seems to be written by someone who lived through the events described.  No, I mean REALLY lived there.  So many historical novels purport to be first person accounts of events and fall short, but we make excuses for the writer, saying "Well, it is set in in a date from before the birth of Christ...".  This book has the richness that leaves you feeling that you have visited the times and places described.

Here is a quote from the beginning of the book so you know what I mean:
He had been susceptible to headaches ever since the brawl in the wineshop at Tomi.  It was there the Sarmatian horse trader had flung the beer mug that scarred him above the right ear.  Now, when the traffic woke him as it always did in the still time before the dawn, the pain returned; the result, no doubt, of too much wine the previous evening.  The heavy shutters across the windows creaked as the October wind blew hesitantly against the tenement block in which he had lived for the past year.
He lay tensed beneath the worn blanket and tried, as always, to shut out the noise of the rumbling carts that, empty now, having deposited their loads at the warehouses south of the Aventine hill, were moving up to the Aemilius bridge.  But he found it impossible to sleep and, presently, went to the window to cool his head and watch the torches of the night patrol blowing gustily in the narrow street as they went off duty.
The street began to flare with torches and movement.  The baker's assistant opposite began to pile fresh loaves onto a handcart, watched intently by two barefoot boys.  When it became overloaded they would pick the spoiled bread from the gutter without fear of being charged with theft.  A murmur of voices came from below as men filled the street on their way to work.  Over all, he could hear the din of hammers as the metalworkers in iron and bronze who occupied the next street commenced their day.
His feet grew chilled on the bare floor...
 A Warning to Readers 

This is not an easy read.  Many times I had to set the book down and head for the Internet to look up the history, geography and people of Ancient Rome.  I'm not complaining.  I enjoyed that.  To read the book without the historical information would be a waste of time.

Mr. Breem's first novel was written as a gift to his wife (see my post on Eagle in the Snow).  This novel reads like a gift to every classicist on the planet.  There is so much for the knowledgeable reading to enjoy.  This means that you, the reader, must assemble the plot in your mind as you read, as if you were decoding a diplomatic message.  But you cannot do this properly without a solid grounding in the history and the people of the times.
Challenging, yes.  Rewarding, most definitely yes!  It is the kind of book that you read to the last page then you start all over again at page one, to make sure you've really understood everything that happened.  I read it, did lots of research, then read it again, and I enjoyed it even more the second time around!

Enjoy this amazing view of Ancient Rome:

Rome Reborn 2.2: A Tour of Ancient Rome in 320 CE from Bernard Frischer on Vimeo.

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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