First sheaf in a new series by Rice, picking up where The Tale of the Body Thief (1992) left off and telling of 2,000-year-old Pandora, who is seduced in Paris by newly-fanged David Talbot, an elderly scholar, into writing her memoirs. Followers of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Count Saint-Germain vampire historicals will fred themselves on familiar ground in Rice's Rome of Caesar Augustus. Remember that the stronger half of Rice's recent Servant of the Bones (1996), about the Wandering Babylonian Ghost Azriel, gave her purple pen free rein in limning the hanging garden, golden passageways, and other ornaments of Babylon. Similarly now, as she turns from modern Paris to ancient Rome, her writing lifts from gruelingly sloppy hackwork to tightly engaging prose, perhaps because this material marries research to make-believe: Give her some ground to stand on, and she tells a good story. Here, Pandora is 10, Marius 25--and not yet a vampire--when the two first meet in her father's palazzo. Twenty years and a pair of failed marriages later, when her father is attacked by Augustus and she must flee to Antioch, Pandora finds herself overcome by dreams of bloodlust. She asks a priestess in Antioch: Do these blood dreams come from the goddess Isis? Then she meets Marius, whom she's adored from girlhood on, in the temple of Isis and goes to live with him. But Marius is now the caretaker of two living mummies or statues that Pandora mistakes for Isis and Osiris (or Hems), and Isis/Akasha bestows on her the dark gift in the novel's most ecstatic scene. Marius exhorts her, though, about her detestation of blood-drinkers and swears never to make another (which requires exchange of blood with the host). Forever fighting, the rational Marius and emotional Pandora care for the evil gods for two centuries, through the spread of Christianity, and then part, with a sequel (Armand) promised. Forget Violin (1997). This is Rice in top romantic form, despite a slippery page here and there.