I’ve just read my first novel by Lindsey Davis and it definitely won’t be my last! Lindsey Davis came to my attention when she appeared on both the 2013 and 2012 lists of favourite historical fiction authors. She was a guest of honour at the 2014 Historical Novel Society conference in London and the audience (including me) loved her dry wit and interesting stories about writing. Lindsey’s specialty is ancient Rome and she is well know for her Falco series of historical crime stories.
The Course of Honour is about Emperor Vespasian and his lover Antonia Caenis. If high school history had been as interesting as Lindsey’s stories, I would have enjoyed it so much more, and learned a lot as well.
Using the the top attributes of favourite historical fiction from the 2013 historical fiction survey, here’s my review.
(1) Feeling immersed in time and place – From the opening pages we know where we are and can already feel ancient Rome as we are swiftly introduced to Vespasian, Caenis and Sabinus and to the political time of Emperor Tiberius just before the fall of Aelius Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard.
Ancient Rome – a time of corruption, religious superstitions, senatorial machinations, incredible wealth mixed with incredible poverty. A time where rules were rigidly followed, where men poisoned wives and brothers schemed against fathers. A time when Rome’s empire extended “from Africa to Gaul, from Farther Spain to Syria” and the gods could be capricious.
Here’s an example of time and place “the teenaged daughter being raped first, to spare the public executioner from the crime of killing a virgin. Rome had harsh rules, but they did exist.”
And another: “in the Twelfth District, law took second place to huge men with brutal tempers who trained gladiators.”
The Course of Honour takes us from AD31 to AD69 – a huge span of time that Davis masters with ease, interspersing just enough language and terms of the day to add authenticity without confusion. We experience festivals, triumphant parades, the life of a scribe, Roman baths, the pecking order from Emperor to lowly slave. We glide through magnificent palaces and step through the filthy streets of Rome. We learn about Roman dress, foods, shopping, senatorial hierarchy, social mores, Rome’s invasion of Britain, Vespasian’s struggles to conquer Jerusalem and so much more.
(2) Superb writing – Davis’ prose has an easy flow. Her scenes are well set, emotion vividly drawn. Except for a few occasions – for example, the use of Thanks and Neat! and gent – her dialogue suits my concept of the times and brings her characters to life. Caenis, Veronica, Vespasian, Narcissus were my favourite characters. While I did not underline many passages, I did note this one that occurs in chapter 1 with my comment ‘superb cadence’.
“Everywhere lay silent. The echoes of their own footfalls had whispered and died. No other sign of occupation disturbed the chill, tall, marble-veneered corridors of the staterooms on the Palatine Hill from which the Roman Empire was administered.”
I read lovely bits of imagery like: “Vespasian’s mood had clarified like a wax tablet melting for reuse.”
I also enjoyed the teasing bits of irony or sarcasm Davis weaves into the story. At times she pokes fun at Roman life, at other times her comments transcend time and are equally applicable today. “Caenis had made it her lifelong rule never to trust a man with peculiar footwear.” Or “Vespasian wondered why the most inhospitable tracts of territory were so endlessly disputed.”
Occasionally, Davis becomes the historian summarizing spans of time by listing the highlights of what occurred. While these did not take away from the story, they were a noticeable change of style.
(3) Characters both heroic and human – Emperors, slaves, senators, prostitutes, generals, high born women and men populate the pages of The Course of Honour. Some are tragic, others noble. Some are despicable. Vespasian and Caenis are the epitome of characters both heroic and human. They caught my interest immediately and that interest strengthened throughout the story.
Lindsey Davis has a knack for offering the most intriguing bits about historical figures.
(4) Authentic and educational – For the most part fact remains subsidiary to story. Most often we learn through the eyes of one of the characters. Occasionally, the narrator tells us what she feels we should know, but even then the information is so interesting that I rarely skipped any of the detail.
Here’s Lindsey Davis explaining the water-organ from Caenis’ perspective: “As far as Caenis could judge from her place in the upper gallery it was a gigantic set of panpipes, partly brass and partly reed, worked by a large beam-lever that forced air into a water box; under pressure it found its way to the pipe chamber and then to the pipes, released into them by slides which the musician operated.”
(5) Dramatic arc of historical events – there is plenty of drama in The Course of Honour as we travel from Emperor Tiberius to Emperor Vespasian and like an experienced surfer, Lindsey Davis catches and rides the big waves of that time period. At time the story leaps ahead by two years or twenty so we can catch those times when the love affair between Caenis and Vespasian changes or when their lives take a sudden turn. My imagination was completely engaged as I powered through the story in just a few days time.
A wonderful read. Highly recommended.