My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Empress of the Seven Hills takes place during the reign of Emperor Trajan of Rome. Domitian, previous Emperor, had been assassinated in Quinn’s earlier book Mistress of Rome. Reading that book first is not essential to the utter enjoyment afforded in reading Empress.
This novel centers around several distinct characters: Vix, Titus, Sabina, and Plotina. We learn of Vix, a gladiator turned legionary who maintains an on-again, off-again, passionate love affair with Sabina, in his own voice. Sabina is a wild and clever woman, who marries Hadrian (who by the end of the tale has become Emperor himself. Titus Antoninus first appears as a young, gangly youth in deep love with Sabina, but later he serves in the legions as tribune, one of the most honest and attentive. Eventually he marries Sabina’s half-sister. Finally, there is Plotina, Trajan’s wife and a plotting schemer par excellence. She will do anything to see her precious Hadrian come to the Imperial throne.
Characters journey from Rome to Dacia to Pannonia to Syria. The legions conquer, or put down rebellions. Vix rises through the ranks to become centurion, until at story’s end, finally Emperor Hadrian appoints him one of his Praetorian Guard, after first threatening his wife and children in order to force Vix to assassinate his rivals (including Titus). The women navigate being with their husbands or lovers while living satisfied lives. Sabina at first thought marriage to Hadrian would be interesting, until she realizes he is most unsuitable to be Emperor. Unfortunately, her attempts to ensure that never happen fail, and now she must face life as the Empress herself. Titus, having bearded Plotina about her embezzlements and informing Trajan, now realizes that with Trajan dead he is no longer safe.
History comes to life in these pages. While Quinn admits that she took a bit of licence in creating the character of Vix and in her portrayal of Plotina, she nonetheless breathes marvelous life into people and events that may be less familiar.
While the book ends in a manner leading one to expect a third book, this book nevertheless can and should be read on its own merits.