In her latest historical novel, Justice (Sword of the Gladiatrix, 2015, etc.) examines the life of little-known Roman empress Placidia.
In the fifth century, the Roman territory of Ravenna in northern Italy is sacked by the Goths. Young Princess Placidia is captured and held as a “guest” in the Goths’ royal court so that she can be used as a negotiation tool with the Romans. The author creates great tension as readers follow Placidia to the Gothic land, where she’s taken care of by Queen Gaatha, the wife of Alaric, king of the Goths. After a series of events that warms Placidia to the barbarian tribe, she finds herself falling for Ataulf, Gaatha’s brother, who takes control of the Goths after Alaric falls dead of a fever. Alaric’s and others’ demises come rather abruptly, but the book is an addictive read, as Justice chooses her key moments wisely, weaving a decadeslong narrative about Placidia’s layered life as she rises to eventual leadership. The opening scenes make clear that as a woman, Placidia’s bloodline is her most useful asset in ancient society. The author does a fine job of delicately underlining the limits of female governance during the period, creating sympathy for the heroine, whose only option is to rule through men. The sharp protagonist effectively navigates the politics surrounding her incapable brother, as well as conspirators, tragic deaths, and war, all while trying to save the nearly deflated Roman Empire. Justice shies away from in-depth political and geographical history, which keeps the novel from feeling like a historical lesson; however, at times, the text feels rushed, with myriad new names constantly appearing. If the author had allowed the various characters a little more room to breathe, it would have added more richness to the book. That said, the prose is tight and clean throughout, and the characters’ missions are always clear despite the complexities of the situations.
A fun, fast read with some history and feminist themes thrown in.