The Exiled by David Barbaree
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
According to Suetonius, Emperor Nero committed suicide on hearing the troop of cavalry who were coming to arrest him arrive at the villa in which he was hiding: ‘Hark to the sound I hear! It is the hooves of galloping horses‘.
Their orders: take him alive.
But it was too late.
A letter, which had arrived moments before the soldiers, informed Nero that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate and was to be punished in the ‘ancient style’ (stripped naked, head thrust into a wooden fork, flogged to death with sticks). And so, to avoid that dire fate, Nero:
‘with the help of his secretary Epaphroditus, […] stabbed himself in the throat and was already half-dead when a cavalry officer entered […] he died, with eyes glazed and bulging from their sockets, a sight which horrified everybody present’ (Suetonius, Nero, 49).
Now that’s all well and good, perhaps true or perhaps not, but either way David Barbaree is having none of it. His Nero is taken that day, and tortured, but remains alive…
It’s an idea with a long tradition, with men proclaiming themselves ‘Nero’ almost from the moment of the emperor’s death in 68 CE. A rather problematic issue for the new dynasty, as you might imagine. And it’s precisely this that forms the basis of the book. Here, the rise of a False Nero complicates an already dangerous civil war in Parthia, the deadly threads of these plots weaving through the highest echelons of Roman politics.
This is a world of prophesy, conspiracy, and secrets. Danger abounds. But they don’t know what we know, that the real Nero lives… and still has moves to make. Let the games begin.
Ok, so the book started somewhat unfavourably. The prologue and the opening perspective were both hugely dramatic, with declarative speechifying and limited connection to the characters. I worried because this is how and why so much historical fiction of this period fails– because authors are too desperate to cram in all the things which seem strangest to us, like oracles and harems, rather than keeping the focus on what brings genuine feeling and emotional attachment…the people.
Thankfully, the next perspective brought relief: Pliny’s young nephew, Gaius, was an immediate hit and his are the eyes through which we see most of the story unfold. Yet he is just one of a number of fascinating characters, a variety which includes a Parthian hostage, Vespasian’s daughter, Domitillia, Senators, gladiators, soldiers and more. The multiple POVs work exceptionally well together, each voice distinct and genuine, every one bringing something valuable to the story. It felt like real people doing real things. The thrilling vitality of this recreated world and its inhabitants is brilliantly realised, enhancing the horror of the disaster that hangs heavy over them all. For this is another thing we know and they don’t. The setting is, after all, is the Bay of Naples. In Baiae, our characters live as they always have. Pompeii thrives. And Vesuvius looms in the background like a dark shadow, while earthquakes shake the earth with a little more energy every time.
As the tendrils of the plot draw together and the tension heightens, the omens of catastrophe grow ever more clear. Until the fateful day arrives…
Historical fiction is all about choices– what to include or not, how to present a well known figure, what ‘truths’ are best to twist or ignore, what needs to stay the same– and the author makes some interesting ones.
The Nero in these pages was not the one I expected. He’s clever, mysterious, full of schemes, but nevertheless, likeable. Actually, that bit could well be right to a certain extent, he was popular in the early days, especially with the plebs, and his reputation has been effectively maligned by later writers. On the other hand, this is an emperor ‘known’ for his cruelty, later on in his reign at the very least. His ‘highlights’ include possible involvement in burning down Rome, kicking his pregnant wife to death, and killing his mother. These are not little things. There’s no sense of that here, but perhaps he is a man reborn. Having everything taken from you, including your eyes, may well change your personality somewhat. Either way, it’s a bold choice to keep him alive AND then possibly rehabilitate his character. I liked it. And why not? Go all in, I say. Basically, it just makes me want to sit down with the author and pepper him with questions. Most of which start with ‘why….?’
Some of those might have been answered in Deposed, the first in the series. I didn’t realise this was the second book until I started, and it didn’t affect my enjoyment of this instalment at all, but I clearly missed a few things. Or maybe we’ll find out more about Nero in the future, because there’s definitely more to come. The last sections of this book brutally educate the reader about the whims of fortune, illustrating why historical fiction has such a delicious inevitability about it. Real life doesn’t always include happy endings. And anyone who knows the list of emperors, knows that it goes as follows: Titus. Domitian. Nerva. Trajan. I think readers will recognise some of those names… and wonder how the author plans to get us there. I’m ALL in.
An imaginative and exciting read, a truly fun addition to the tales of this turbulent period.
Now bring on the next…
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