Lady of the Eternal City by Kate Quinn – review

Review – Lady of the Eternal City

by Kate Quinn

This is not my usual sort of book. In fact, I’d go as far to say I’ve never read a book like this before, simply because I wouldn’t choose it myself at the library or book shop (I was sent an Advance Review Copy by the author because I’d enjoyed one of her previous works). I am very set in my ways when it comes to entertainment – I don’t watch horror movies, I don’t listen to pop music and, when it comes to novels, I like a lot of action. While there is some action here, the novel is centred around the relationships of the main characters, with Emperor Hadrian, his wife Empress Sabina, grizzled old soldier Vercingetorix and Hadrian’s (male) lover Antinous.

lady of eternal cover

It’s a very long book and the thing I enjoyed most was the fact that I felt like I was learning a lot about this period of Roman history (I didn’t know much at all before this). It’s all told in such an interesting way, though, that you’re happy to be learning while engaging with the characters and their tangled, irrevocably intertwined fates.

As with any good book you will be rooting for your favourites while hoping that the “baddies” get what’s coming to them and, for the most part, you’ll be glad to see just that happening. However, Emperor Hadrian himself proves to be an extremely complex individual – I feared we were just dealing with a cliched, blacker-than-black murderous lunatic but I was wrong. I won’t spoil things but by the end of the book you realise each and every one of these people, particularly Hadrian, were just humans like you or I, with hopes and dreams and a dark side as well as a good side.

I felt sorry for all of them because they suffer so much but the end of the book leaves some room for hope, rather like the previous book of Kate’s that I read, A Day of Fire.

Overall, I have to be honest, I could have done with more people getting their teeth punched out – the most important relationship in my usual reading is the one between a hairy-arsed barbarian’s sword and his enemy’s face! But, as I say, Lady of the Eternal City is a long book and, when you have limited time to read as I do, the fact I enjoyed it enough to finish it speaks volumes for the skill of the writing and the strength of the story.

If you fancy a change of pace from endless brutality but still want a trip to ancient Rome then you should definitely pick this one up, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

Find out more in the Q&A I did with the author here.

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Kate Quinn “Lady of the Eternal City” Q&A

Today I’m pleased to introduce author Kate Quinn, who’s just released her new book, Lady of the Eternal City (my review of it will appear on Monday so look out for it!).

National bestselling author Kate Quinn returns with the long-awaited fourth volume in the Empress of Rome series, an unforgettable new tale of the politics, power, and passion that defined ancient Rome.

Elegant, secretive Sabina may be Empress of Rome, but she still stands poised on a knife’s edge. She must keep the peace between two deadly enemies: her husband Hadrian, Rome’s brilliant and sinister Emperor; and battered warrior Vix, who is her first love. But Sabina is guardian of a deadly secret: Vix’s beautiful son Antinous has become the Emperor’s latest obsession.

Empress and Emperor, father and son will spin in a deadly dance of passion, betrayal, conspiracy, and war. As tragedy sends Hadrian spiraling into madness, Vix and Sabina form a last desperate pact to save the Empire. But ultimately, the fate of Rome lies with an untried girl, a spirited redhead who may just be the next Lady of the Eternal City . . .

kate quinn

Hi Kate, thanks for chatting with me today. First of all, it’s a huge book! How long did it take you to write it?

Maybe a year? It’s all a blur. This was originally intended to be part and parcel of “Empress of the Seven Hills,” which covers the reign of Emperor Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan. But I realized that there was no way so much history was going to fit in one book. Hadrian’s half of the history barely fit into this book.

The historical aspects are extremely impressive and are woven into the story with great skill so it doesn’t feel like a lecture. How much research did you have to do? What part of that did you enjoy the most?

I researched obsessively, Anthony Everitt’s superb biography of Hadrian being my primary Bible—I wore it to tatters like a child’s security blanket. Researching Hadrian’s reign was fun because of just how many dramatic real-life events happened to him: action-packed lion hunts, mysterious prophecies, assassination attempts, epic love affairs, nearly being struck by lightning while making sacrifice to the thunder god—I made none of those things up.

That brings me nicely to my next question: how much of the book is based on historical fact? Did you embellish much or add anything to make it a better story?

I flexed the ages of my younger characters to fit the story better—we have no birth date recorded for Annia Galeria Faustina the Younger, so I edged her birth up some years to suit the story, and I edged Marcus Aurelius back a bit to keep him more contemporary with her. Vix, my fictional Praetorian, is a composite of several real historical figures: Marcius Turbo whose incredible military career launched him from common legionary to Hadrian’s right-hand man, and his fellow Prefect who was fired for being “overly intimate” with Hadrian’s wife. What I did most often was fill in the spaces behind the (sometimes very sparse) facts. We know Empress Sabina was “overly intimate” with her Praetorian, but we don’t know what that meant or what really happened. Likewise, we know very little about the early years of Jewish rebel leader Simon Bar Kokhba. In both places, I let my imagination fill in the gaps.

Which character did you enjoy writing the most? Do you get attached to them and feel sad if anything bad happened?

I was very fond of Antinous, he of the beautiful face and the equally beautiful soul. He was a late addition to the book as a viewpoint character; I realized with the help of my critique partners that the story needed his voice, and I realized this about 6 weeks from my deadline. So I wrote all his scenes at once at a white heat, inserting them where they were needed, and his voice was warm and immediate in my head. Which hurt because from the very beginning, since I knew what was in store for the historical Antinous—and I grieved for him.

You did a good job with Hadrian who, at first, I thought was just going to be a complete loon but you gave him a lot of depth and it really made for a better read.

Thanks! Hadrian was a puzzling character, the most contradictory and frustrating historical figure I’ve ever researched. He’s like a handful of water to pin down; almost every character trait he had was bracketed by its direct opposite. He was a blood-lover with a merciful streak; a sybarite who loved roughing it; a religious cynic; a superstitious man of science; a military man and a classical scholar. I nearly tore out my hair trying to pinpoint his character, and I still have no idea if my version is any closer to the truth than anyone else’s!

lady of eternal cover

I must admit I was a little surprised at the Romans’ negative attitude towards homosexuality, given their love of Greek culture with its iconic figures like Alexander the Great. Indeed, Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous seems to mirror that of Alexander and Hephaistion.

Roman sexual mores seems homophobia-free at first look, but that isn’t really the case. Two men could only bed down respectably if one of them was either a slave, or if of the same social class, a teenage boy. Once Antinous passed into his twenties (which I conjecture he did, since his statues all show a mature young man and not a weedy teenager) he would have been held up to public scorn for taking the woman’s role in a relationship, even if that relationship was with the Emperor. And Hadrian was condemned as well, because his passion for Antinous crossed the bounds of what was considered seemly. Roman manhood stressed the need for gravitas and emotional restraint—for an emperor to show such uninhibited public passion for a concubine (of either sex) was seen as an embarrassment.

I couldn’t help noticing Annia was quite similar to another character from recent literature whose name also starts and end with an ‘A’… Did you have that in mind at all when you were writing?

No, but the comparison delights me because I’m a huge “Game of Thrones” fan, and I love Arya Stark. It’s hard to find a way to make a historical heroine a badass, given all the constraints on female behavior, but with the craze during Hadrian’s reign for all things Greek, I found a way for Annia to be a runner like the famed women of Sparta.

I first read your work in A Day of Fire which was a quite exceptional book. Ben Kane was one of your co-authors on that – do you have any plans to visit Hadrian’s Wall in period correct Roman garb with Ben in any future Romani Walks of his?

I’d snap up the offer in a heartbeat, since I do my best thinking on long walks. But what is correct period Roman garb for a Roman girl walking the wall? I’m no marathoner like Annia, and if I travel in the period style of any of my Empresses, I’ll need a litter and six strapping litter-bearers.

Not sure if Ben, Anthony Riches and Russell Whitfield (the other authors that did the Romani Walk in aid of Médecins Sans Frontières and Combat Stress) would be up for that to be honest! How is A Day of Fire doing though? I see it’s been shortlisted as one of the best indie books of 2014 in the forthcoming Historical Novel Society conference which must be a huge buzz for you.

It was! We’re all delighted. Thinking about doing another collaboration; we’ll see what happens.

What’s next for you? More historical fiction? Do you have any plans to try a different genre or a completely different time period?

I’ve already done a two-book branch-out into Renaissance Italy, with a duology about the Borgia family. I’ve got other ideas, maybe even something 20th century, but nothing’s certain yet!

Brilliant answers, thank you again for this Kate.

Now, check back here on Monday for my review of Lady of the Eternal City. In the meantime, you can find out more (or buy it!) here:


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A Day of Fire – A Novel of Pompeii review

A Day of Fire review

by Steven A. McKay

It’s nice being a writer. Sometimes other writers ask you to read their book before it’s even been published which is a real privilege, especially when it’s Ben Kane doing the asking.

I’ve been a fan of Ben’s Roman novels for years now – I was even reading his Spartacus on my phone when I was in hospital last year waiting for my son to be born!

He’s been supportive of my own writing too so I was more than happy to take a look at A Day of Fire, the new novel he’s written in collaboration with five other hugely successful historical fiction authors.

I must admit I was a little apprehensive when I started the book. Of the six contributors, Ben was the only one I’d ever read before. And on top of that, the idea of a book written by so many different people seemed like it might be a disjointed affair, with varying styles clashing and no real sense of unity.

I was wrong.

Very wrong.

The first chapter/section, “The Son”, is written by Vicky Alvear Shecter and follows a young man learning about love and sex. I was drawn in immediately, despite the fact I wouldn’t normally choose to read about this kind of subject. The characters seemed real and it was a good way to start, with the suggestion of tremors just beginning to affect the city.

The second part, “The Heiress”, by Sophie Perinot, was similar to the first but this time we mostly follow a girl, with more lessons in love. Wait! If you’re like me, that sentence might have put you off, but you shouldn’t be. The tremors are growing and so is the tension. This is very powerful writing – in my notes I’ve put “10/10 – Excellent!” at the top of the page for this section. This isn’t your typical Mills & Boon romance, this is historical fiction at its very best.

Ben’s chapter, “The Soldier”, comes next and it’s a timely departure, taking us into the world of a retired old legionary who hopes his gladiator will win and earn him enough money to pay off his debtors. The focus here isn’t on the power of sex, it’s about money. There’s a very funny part which lightens the mood of the whole piece as things really start to get dangerous and people begin desperately trying to leave the doomed city.

Part four, “The Senator”, by Kate Quinn centres around someone ‘important’ for a change, and for all his wealth, power and influence he’s shown here to be just as inconsequential as everyone else in the face of the falling rocks and showering ash that’s drowning Pompeii. There is much horror, sadness and savagery in this piece but I still found it a strangely uplifting and hopeful chapter.

E. Knight’s penultimate section, “The Mother”, shows us a pregnant mother-to-be, trapped with the rest of her family as the volcano destroys their home and her baby tries to come to life in a city that’s destined to die. Despite the horribly depressing premise, the love and warmth of the interactions between the family members keeps things from becoming oppressive.

The last chapter, “The Whore”, is by Stephanie Dray and is a stunning, moving finale that closes things perfectly. We have two sisters trying to escape the dying city, helping those around them without even knowing at times why they’re doing it. As the end approaches, the fear and sense of futility is never far away, but when it finally comes the over-riding emotion isn’t despair, but HOPE.

I feel honoured to have been able to read this incredible book before almost everyone else.

It tells the tale of a truly momentous historical event – one that we still talk about two-thousand years later. But here we see the people, feel their hopes, fears, dreams, regrets, lust and love. History is truly brought to life.

Yes, in places it’s sad and it’s a wonder that the whole thing isn’t overcome with the sense of depression, given the subject matter. As the city, and its populace, dies we see real human goodness at work as families and strangers come together to try and help one another and the reader is left, not with a sense of futility, but with a sense of hope.

I went into this expecting it to be alright, since Ben Kane was involved. In the end I found myself reading the most moving book I’ve read since I first read Jon Fowles The Magus almost a decade ago. Each one of these authors deserves a huge amount of praise for putting this impressive piece of art together. Do yourself a favour and pre-order this excellent book NOW!

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A Day of Fire – Q&A with Ben Kane

Next Tuesday, November 4th, A Day of Fire – A Novel of Pompeii will be released. It’s a collaboration between Ben Kane, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn and Vicky Alvear Shecter. I’ve read an advance copy of it and will post my review here at the weekend. In the meantime, I was lucky enough to talk to one of the book’s authors, Ben Kane (I’d love to have interviewed them all, because they all play an equal part in the book’s success but there’s not enough hours in the day!).

Read on….


Ben Kane

Hi Ben, thank you very much for taking part in this Q&A session. I’ve just finished your new novel, A Day of Fire which is a collaboration between yourself and a few other histfic authors and describes the last days of Pompeii. First of all: why Pompeii? It’s been done before, probably most notably by Robert Harris in recent years. Were you confident you’d be able to come up with a story that added something new to the mix?

Pompeii remains one of the most identifiable events in all of history. The attraction of writing about it was too great to resist. I didn’t really think about whether we’d add something new – I was so thrilled to be writing about it that I didn’t care! Hopefully, we will have added a layer of poignancy to the story, by writing about six different characters, and their families/friends/enemies.

There are six of you in total, that have each written a section of A Day of Fire. How exactly did the project come about? Was one person responsible for gathering you all together and driving it along?

It was the brain child of Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray and Sophie Perinot, I believe. They’re all friends. Kate recruited me – when she asked, I said yes at once.


Did you know the other authors before you started work on the book? I have to be honest, I’ve not read any of their other work, but I plan on changing that now!

I ‘knew’ Kate Quinn a little from a couple of internet fora, but I had never met the others. It’s great that you will now be checking out some new authors because of our book.

How was the synopsis worked out? Did one of you take the lead to come up with a basic plan, then everyone throw in their own ideas before you all settled on the outline?

We followed the timeline of the eruption – and weaved our stories around that, being careful not to have them ALL about the crunch event!

Pompeii - Garden of the Fugitives, image by Lancevortex

Pompeii – Garden of the Fugitives, image by Lancevortex

Obviously you’ve written quite a few of your own novels by now, so how did you find this project? It must have been really strange to try and fit your piece in among the others without it being too stylistically different or losing track of the overall plan.

In this respect, I was lucky. Due to the way the project unfolded, I wrote my story before anyone else, which meant I didn’t need to think of anyone else’s stories. When they had finished their pieces, I had to change a few things so that they all meshed together, but I found that fun and interesting rather than annoying.

Just some of Ben's books

Just some of Ben’s books

Your own chapter is different from the others, with the focus on an old soldier rather than a bride-to-be or a prostitute kind of thing. I thought it provided an interesting – and welcome – change from the other pieces and came at just the right time. Was this done on purpose?

Yes and no. I could have written about a serving soldier – those are my usual characters – or a civilian. I decided to go for a mix between the two – a veteran, with a gambling problem. I hope it worked.

Now that it’s about to be released, what do you think of the book overall? Where does it stand in your canon of work, in your opinion? I must admit I found myself welling up at certain points, it’s so powerfully written.

I really like it. At the start, I was a little wary – I hadn’t read the work of most of my co-writers. However, I found their stories to be great reads. I have no idea how it stands in my canon (no one’s ever said that before!) of work. Only my readers can judge that. I’m so pleased it touched you!

Pompeii and Vesuvius, image by High Contrast

Pompeii and Vesuvius, image by High Contrast

And A Day of Fire is self-published too. I find this a big surprise, to be honest. I’d have thought the publishing houses would have been fighting one another to put this out there! Not just because it’s a good book, but because each of you has a ready-made audience.

There’s a story in there…we did have a mainstream publisher on board for a while, but they pulled out for a number of reasons. Rather than continue to waste time looking for another publisher, we decided to self-publish and see what happened…

What’s next for Ben Kane? Any plans to write more books with other authors? You and your mate Anthony Riches could probably come up with something good, eh?

Ha! I would love to write other books with other authors – it’s finding the time. For the moment, I am sticking with my next novel, Eagles at War. That’s set in Germany, in 9 AD, and concerns the disastrous battle in which Rome lost 3 legions. It’s out in April 2015.

Speaking of Mr. Riches, how’s the Romani Walk fund-raising going? You have a new film out soon, isn’t that right? Are you, Tony and Russell (Whitfield) going to do it all over again next year?

(For those of you who don’t know, the #RomaniWalk is a mad event that I’ve done for the last two years, walking silly distances for charity, wearing even more silly amounts of Roman armour.) We raised over £26,500 this year, which is about £7,000 more than last year. Not bad! We had a film made of the walk, yes, which is looking for a home! We may or may not do another walk next year – it depends a little on the TV situation. 2016, definitely!

Ben, Anthony Riches and Russell Whitfield in full Romani Walk mode!

Ben, Anthony Riches and Russell Whitfield in full Romani Walk mode!

Thanks for talking to me, Ben, I hope A Day of Fire finds a huge readership. It honestly deserves it and, considering the price it costs for the Kindle version histfic fan have no excuse not to buy a copy!

Thanks very much for interviewing me, Steven, and for reading and enjoying the book. Cheers!

A Day of Fire – A Novel of Pompeii is out on November 4th, but you can pre-order your Kindle copy NOW from these links. It will also be available as a paperback on the 4th if you prefer that format. Do yourself a favour, don’t miss this brilliant book, and be sure to check back here over the weekend to read my review!

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USA readers:

A Day of Fire – A Novel of Pompeii by Ben Kane et al

I’ve been very lucky to get an advance copy of a new book, Day of Fire – a novel of Pompeii by some of histfic’s finest writers, including Ben Kane who’s supported me since before Wolf’s Head was even published.

I wasn’t sure how well the book would work, being a collaborative effort with sections written by different authors and, to be honest, I’ve never read any of the contributors’ other work (apart from Ben, obviously).

I’m glad to say I’m loving it. I mean really loving it. I think it’s safe to say this one of the best books I’ve read in the past five years at least – it’s fantastic. Which is just as well, as it would have been pretty awkward for me if I’d thought it was shit after agreeing to review it…

You can look forward to a Q&A with me and Ben in the next couple of weeks, before I post my review.

In the meantime, you can pre-order the novel on Amazon. It’s only £3.15 in the UK (I assume it will be the same ludicrously low price in the rest of the world). Click the cover image below to check it out!