This is not an entirely proper review, partly because it’s by a friend – although I have reviewed Roberts’ work before, and that by other friends too (fortunately, I usually like it, so that’s no hardship) – and partly because it’s (rather unexpectedly) dedicated to me!
Those biases declared, let me say that I did, perhaps naturally, love this book; the dedication aside, I am a fan of Roman history, so Roberts’ take on the Caesar family was fascinating indeed. The first story in this collection is “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Bestiary.” It gives a potted history of the Caesar family… with added monsters. I really enjoyed the characterisation of the various members of this crazy family. Roberts captures an essence, I think, of the various emperors and their wives/sisters/mothers that actually rings quite true. I particularly liked that although Gaius – Caligula – is shown to be a bit nuts eventually, he’s handled much more sensitively than most other fictional representations bother. Of course. And the monsters made a bizarre sort of sense; they fit in delightfully well with the overall vibe of the story.
The stories progress chronologically through what Roberts affectionately calls the Agrippinaverse. The second story is “Lamia Victoriana” – lamias being the Roman equivalent of female vampires. Here, in Victorian England, Fanny and Mary run away “with a debauched poet and his sister,” as the blurb has it, with the coda that “If it was the poet you are thinking of, the story would have ended far more happily, and with fewer people having their throats bitten out.” The blurb is, by the way, one of the most enticing and true to the story that I’ve read in a long time. It gives an accurate, and seductive, portrayal of each story, and teams that with snarky comments which perfectly fit the tart, sometimes lovingly exasperated, voice of the stories. This second story is the odd one out in some ways; it’s a great story, still, but it’s different in mood and tone from the other three. Darker.
“The Patrician” is the story written in a time most clearly like our own… if Australia had a recreated Roman city somewhere. This is in many ways the centrepiece of the collection. Clea Majora meets a stranger visiting her town, and gets drawn into an adventure even weirder than living in a town called Nova Ostia. There’s not much to say without giving away the awesome way in which the story develops. It’s brilliant. Everyone should read it. It stands by itself as well as being perfect within the context of the other stories.
Finally, the collection is rounded out with “Last of the Romanpunks.” Where the first story is basically historical fantasy, and the second riffs off the Gothic sensibilities of the Victorian era, and the third is beholden to urban fantasy, the fourth ventures into science fiction territory. Managing all four of those genres, clearly connecting the stories through characters and ideas but keeping the vibe of each distinct, is quite the feat. Anyway, Roberts decided to close the collection with a bang, since I think of this story as the most action-based of the four. And again, very enjoyable.