toby just called me saying he was finished work and heading to the library, and did i want anything?
i am rather lucky.
also it was good timing as i just finished a long and undeservedly lauded book.
Romanitas was a book toby had bought on the strength of its blurb and the incredible premise: basically, that the Roman empire never fell, and survived and strengthened through all these years, completely rewriting the history of the entire world.
he warned me, though, that the actual book doesn’t live up to its promise, but i was still interested to read it, despite us having similar tastes in basically everything (we both loathed Benjamin Button the movie, for instance, and really enjoyed the book…). as a historian, something like this thrills me intensely.
he was right, though, the book was shockingly average. weighing in at an appallingly unneccessary 575 pages, the entire premise is revealed on the back cover, and from there on out you’re left to guess at the history of the world Sophia McDougall has imagined. one conversation about foreign policy in a palace sitting room is not enough to keep the incredible idea afloat, unfortunately, and i was trudging through the storyline before i was halfway through.
for some reason, the author has decided to basically ignore her basic (brilliant) framework, filling the pages instead with a run-of-the-mill fantasy storyline involving two escaped slaves, siblings, with strange mental powers, a plot to assassinate heirs to the Imperial throne, and a band of rebel slaves and Roman citizens running an escape route in the mountains of what is present-day France.
this is the crux of the matter for me: a lucky stroke of genius gave McDougall the idea for her book, but her imagination couldn’t stretch far enough to realise it fully, or at all. her characters and their relationships are mind-numbingly cliched, picked out of any number of the last 50 years’ worth of fantasy fiction novels. even in her one brilliant idea, she can’t see past what is already in front of her; for instance, the modern Roman citizen watches their news on a ‘longvision’, calls their friends on a ‘longdictor’ and watches as police ‘spiral-wings’ fly overhead, searching for escaped slaves. i don’t know how much you have thought about this, but in my opinion, given the relative advancement of Roman civilisation 2000+ years ago, society might have progressed quite a lot further than we have today, with Western civilisation as we know it based upon both Roman and the less civilised Saxon societies.
i would have loved to read about a society where ‘longvision’ and ‘longdictors’ were relics, leading inevitably on to new and better inventions.
McDougall, however, repeats this flaw in her actual history of the last 2000 years, relegated to the back of the book. in it she lists all the achievements of the Roman empire – people who, at the time of their decline in world influence, had basic medical equipment and practices strikingly similar to our modern versions, indoor heating and toilets, an understanding of how important and civilised cleanliness was, complex political structures and a monetary system – in terms of colonisation, expansion, enslavement, and technological development. disappointingly, she has stuck almost identically with the real-time version of technology, having ‘magnetways’ (railways) invented about 50 years before trains were, having ‘longscript’ (telegraph) lines invented and installed a few years later, with longdictors (telephones) coming 30 years after that.
this blatantly uninterested logic kills me. how hard would it have been to have them invent such things three or four hundred years earlier, since by her own calculations they have 770 years on us? how much more could have been invented in that time? how many more advances in communication and mobility could have occurred, using what we know as a starting point? the possibilities are endless, and yet none of them are explored or even touched upon.
toby says he wants to read the second book, in which apparently the threat of a war between the Roman and Nionian (Japanese) empires escalates. i, on the other hand, am supremely uninterested. since every shred of praise on the cover of that book was for her ‘elegant, lively writing’, which i actually found unneccessarily drawn-out, plain, and basically boring, i don’t think the next installment holds much interest for me…
i just pulled cupcakes out of the oven and toby is home: time to find out what literary treats he’s found for me!