Rhonda Roberts

Harper Voyager (2009)

ISBN: 978 0 7322 8855 6

Reviewed by Tansy Tayner Roberts, May 2010

A time travel fantasy about Augustan Rome? Featuring a female gladiator? This one was an insta-buy for me. I was a little trepidatious starting out – much though I adore fiction set in MY era, I’m very picky about it, and small details that wouldn’t bother anyone else will smack me squarely between the eyes.

In the first few chapters, I became rather irritated with the main character. She reminded me a lot of some discussions I had had with people about how the kickarse female lead was so often broken or damaged in some way, to explain why she was so kickarse, and how tired a trope that was. Kannon was interesting, but so angry and tormented that I did have to grit my teeth a bit and carry on…

But, and this is a big but, I got past that after a few chapters. The writing is mostly smooth though I did bump over a few clunky moments early on, a bit too much exposition in dialogue, that sort of thing. It’s a debut novel, after all!

Once our angry Australian martial artist got to the US, though, in search of her long-lost mother, I was hooked. The alternate history part of the story had kicked into gear (two big features: a time agency equivalent of NASA operating out of the US that everyone knows about, and a mainstream Isis cult challenging Christianity in the West and inspiring all kinds of religious intolerance) and I love me some meaty alternate history.

In short, this is a fun, powerful action adventure, much in the style of your Michael Crichton or whatever, only stuffed to the gills with a) Ancient Roman goodness and b) strong, scary awesome female characters.

[some spoilers follow]

The story set up is simple: Kannon was found abandoned and tortured as a toddler in the Australian bush, and was raised by the Asian backpacker who found her. With her foster mother now dead, the only family she has is the cop who never gave up on trying to find out who she was – and now he has a new lead. He suspects Kannon might actually be Celeste Dupree, the daughter of high profile Time Agent Victoria Dupree, famously kidnapped and presumed dead. Kannon is desperate to meet Victoria and find out if this theory is true… but she arrives in the US too late. Victoria is in Ancient Rome on a priority mission, one that she might not come back from. When terrorists take over the Time Agency building, Kannon has no choice but to follow Victoria back in time… two thousand years, to the Age of Augustus.

Victoria’s mission was to play a gladiatrix in the arena and gain the trust of a powerful patron. But she has gone missing, and Kannon’s only way to find her is to take her place as Bellona, fierce gladiatrix and theatrical seductress.

By the time we hit Rome running, I was pretty damn hooked. Kannon’s voice had smoothed out, and the portrayal of Ancient Rome is very evocative. There were a few glitches for me – the main one being that no woman would ever ever EVER be called Domitia Crassus (though at least Crassus being portrayed, however wrongly, as a family name, unlike the Claudia Seferius of the Marilyn Todd books, which always made me want to scream – no Roman woman would EVER take her husband’s name, let alone with masculine grammar, yes this is a pet peeve, shut up, we all have them). Translation technology nicely overstepped the modernist language, and I liked that Roberts played around with the possibilities here, words that it wouldn’t translate, and how it works in reverse.

Kannon’s quest to find her mother is the huge theme dragging us through the novel, and I was utterly compelled by it – her desperation to meet this woman, and everything she learned about her in her absence, the fear that one of them would die before they could meet – oh, it was gripping stuff. Victoria was a tangible presence throughout the book, and that relationship was by far the most interesting. But there was also Domitia, the main antagonist, who was constantly challenging Kannon, and felt very much the Roman matrona.

And… okay, this is a huge SPOILER, turn away if you don’t want to know, but omg one of the big reveals is that the villain behind the scenes is Livia, not only making the total of awesome interesting women in this book up to four, but also my favourite historical person of all time. Roberts is very much revelling in Tacitus’ portrait of Livia only more so, evil poisonous wench that he liked to say she was, and I’m personally of the faith that there was some serious bad press involved there, but I do like me some evil Livia. This one was straight out of I, Claudius.

Oh I do love her so much.

So yes, basically this one got better and better. The largest section of the book was Roman adventure and romps, the sexy subplot took a long time to get going but was soooo worth the wait – there’s some interesting stuff to unpack there in the fact that Kannon’s love interest is a slave, hot and rebellious though he is, and the development of their relationship was crunchy and unexpected.

Oooh and, vitally important, this hot little thriller is a complete story in its own right, resolved properly. It’s open for the coming sequel (which I will be reading despite the tragic lack of Ancient Rome – I suppose I can take the consolation prize of 1930’s Hollywood, but… MORE ANCIENT ROMAN GOODNESS PLZ) but works as a standalone. I am very intrigued to see how the whole time travel and Isis worship stuff fits into 1930’s Hollywood, or indeed if there are other differences to Kannon’s universe that I don’t know about yet. And basically I wanna know what happens next. So I will be reading on.