The great Roman poet, author of Ars Amatoria and the Metamorphoses, is the subject of Alison's fascinating debut: an imagined explanation of what it might have been that caused the emperor Augustus to exile Ovid from Rome for life.
As the story opens, Ovid (b. 43 b.c.) is taking a trip to the Black Sea, purportedly to remove himself from the emperor's view for a time—just out of caution—but also to catch his poetic breath pending the publication of the Metamorphoses, on which the ambitious Ovid pins his most fervent hopes for lasting fame. And such a lucky choice of getaway it is—for what finer creature should he meet along the forested Black Sea shores than Xenia, the sylph-like girl of 20, of immense beauty and mystery, who was found by villagers as an unparented infant. When she swims, she seems to become the water itself, reminding Ovid of his own characters and creations in the Metamorphosis—and leading him to feel stirrings of his next work. She must, of course, return with him to Rome, a prospect that thrills Xenia herself, though Ovid fully knows its dangers: as he learns, she's widely respected for her depth and prowess in the practice of witchcraft, and witchcraft is something that Augustus, in keeping with other of his regulatings of mystery and morality, has strictly forbidden. To Rome, nevertheless, the couple goes, and in the city acclaim does indeed await Ovid for his Metamorphosis, enough of it, in fact, to bring him the patronage of none less estimable than the unscrupulous and driven Julia, the grievously embittered granddaughter of Augustus himself. And so it is that more harm than good may befall Ovid as he progresses with his new work, Medea, modeled secretly on the extraordinary (and dangerous) Xenia, under the patronage of Julia, whose own true motivations won't be known until it's much too late for the ambitious, brilliant, and doomed poet.
Literary life in privileged Ancient Rome: melodramatic, mysterious, believable, compelling.