A thriller for history buffs, this lengthy novel speeds through the rise of the Roman Empire.
How do you become the most powerful man on Earth? Don’t make mistakes. Parrelli’s portrayal of the meteoric rise of Octavian (now known as Augustus Caesar) shows how few Octavian made. His closest associates were among the most capable military leaders and diplomats; though not a warrior himself, his control of the often mercenary Roman legions rivaled the might of even Rome’s greatest generals; his enemies met swift ends as soon as politics allowed. With all his resounding successes and rare failures, Octavian seems almost inhuman—similar to Shakespeare’s portrait of him in Antony and Cleopatra, which Parrelli’s plotcentric narrative doesn’t markedly revise. The bulk of Parrelli’s narrative consists of negotiations, planning and depictions of battle. It’s clear Parrelli pays close attention to the facts of history (or at least, the facts as Roman historians had them), but even as he peppers the narrative with the characters’ laughter, family concerns and friendships, the plot details tend to overwhelm the text. In particular, Octavian’s lack of self-reflection feels like a missed opportunity. Within the nearly 700 pages, Parrelli rarely takes the risk of investigating the psychology behind Octavian’s rise; as such, it can sometimes seem as though he lacks a relatable conscience or coherent extrapolating motivations. This shallowness, coupled with a straightforward, unsubtle style, may disappoint readers looking for a new I, Claudius. The last days of Rome’s republic overflow with betrayals, reversals of fortune, loaded rhetoric and military maneuvering, and Parrelli gives each moment its due while expanding on the lead-up and fallout from each event in a realistic, if cursory, fashion. Still, Parrelli’s fidelity to the Roman historians and his use of maps within the text make for a remarkably accurate portrait of the actual events in Octavian’s life—or at least as accurate as history allows.
Despite the unadorned style and flat characters, the exciting, authentic plot will keep the pages turning.