An emperor’s search for love destroys the very person he most adores. Crime/mystery/romance historical fiction based upon real events and characters of pagan Rome. Set two centuries before Rome’s recognition of Christians, it is an era of intrigue, torrid relations, raging ambition, wild sensuality, & unconventional love. Caesar Hadrian’s ‘favorite’ is found one dawn beneath the waters of the River Nile. Is it a prank gone wrong, a suicide, murder, or something far more sinister? Barrister & historian, Suetonius Tranquillus, & his courtesan companion Surisca are allowed two days to uncover the truth on pain of penalty. They discover more than they bargained for ..
Review by Aleksandr Voinov
I got this book a couple months ago and started right away – then my own writing went insane and all reading fell to the wayside. I re-started about a week ago and read The Hadrian Enigma” straight through, which is always a good sign.
So, yes, I liked this book. The backcover blurb is a bit ambiguous – the investigation into the death of Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s “favourite” (read: lover) is not conducted by Emperor Hadrian himself, but rather by three men he orders to investigate. The investigating team is led by Suetonius, historian, scandal-monger and author of “Lives of the Caesars”. That, alone, is a genius idea. When I read that part – the whole set-up of Hadrian ordering Suetonius to investigate, I was immediately smitten. The novel begins with a lot of verve, told in first person, and I really enjoyed Suetonius’ voice there.
The year is 130 after Christ. Emperor Hadrian, grief-struck, orders Suetonius and a couple others to investigate the death of Antinous, who apparently drowned in the Nile. They have three days to accomplish that, and the investigation centers on the travelling court in Egypt, where several people have a stake in Antinous’ life and death. There are rivals, old enemies, politicians and courtiers, and during the course of this enormous 476 pager, the author draws a lively picture of life in the second century, court politics and the Roman and Greek world. From what I remember of my history courses, the research is spot-on, nothing struck me as wrong in the way the historical setting is presented, so full marks on the history.
When it comes to the gay elements, the book spends a fair amount of time explaining the Greek erastes/eromenos model versus the Roman “anything goes, as long as love isn’t involved and only slaves, youths and women are penetrated”. Erotic relationships are pursued with no regards to gender, race or culture, and we see people further their own agendas with sex, sex traded as a commodity, and sex as expression of love. Again, full marks on how the author treats gay history and gay culture – he gets the sexual morals of the time right, and spends a lot of time discussing sexual morals and codes of conduct of the time, and also shows characters be shocked that Hadrian and Antinous seem to have breached the Roman concept of what is proper in a relationship between an older man and a younger man – their relationship was far more reciprocal than was politic at the time. In fact, the accusation of Emperors taking the passive/female role is one of the most damning things a Roman historian could say about an emperor, just look at the character assassination of Heliogabalus/Elagabal.
This leads directly to the criticism of the novel. It’s the nature of the beast that reviews spend more time on the flaws or perceived faults of a book than what the reviewer liked, which is really unfortunate. It’s also unfortunate that I have to rate the book with the same ratings system that covers everything from fluffy little romances to all-out porn. This book is an epic undertaking of three or four years of research, and it shows. Rating that along the same lines as a formulaic historical romance or porn in historical customs is awkward.
It’s important to say what the book is not. It is not a historical romance, or even a historical m/m romance, despite what it says on the back cover. In my book, it’s a historical crime story, which happens to explore a gay relationship, in a fairly bisexual setting. The book does spend time exploring how Antinous and Hadrian “happened”, the courting, the politics, Antinous’ enemies, and discusses the sexual morals at length. There are two sex scenes, but the focus is not, like m/m romances require, on the relationship as it develops.
For once, Antinous is dead when people talk about him, and is only resurrected in the lengthy accounts of how things happened. He is talked about and the center of the novel, but not the protagonist of the novel. His lover, emperor Hadrian, remains mostly closed off. This is a relationship as witnessed, not as lived.
The author tries to get closer to the characters and lets those witnesses look into Hadrian’s and Antinous’ heads, but the way it’s told, all this has to be guesswork, because the characters themselves are not involved. Another thing – m/m romances as currently marketed and sold require a “happy ever after” or a “happy for now”. Well. Hadrian’s and Antinous’ relationship ended a few weeks before the young man’s death, with is what is being investigated. Death is a no-go area in m/m romances as they are currently sold. Death is a no-go area for the romance genre, period (as I learnt the hard way when I tried to sell “Test of Faith”).
For me, personally, it was too much history (I know, that’s a weird thing to say). There were many instances when the characters were telling the readers things about their world and culture (somebody explains in the book that the Roman world is “phallocentric” – that’s not something I expect a Roman of the 2nd sectury after Christ to say), and exploring at length and in detail themes that they would find quite natural. We never question our natural assumptions, so this felt awkward. Having Greeks talk about the erastes/eromenos model with such academic detail felt like they were doing so for the reader’s benefit, as mouthpieces of all that enormous bulk of research. This is a key challenge of writing historical characters – the research shouldn’t draw attention to itself. In this book, it sadly did.
In addition, the point of view was all over the place. We start with first person, go into third person, and then we have the lengthy interviews with the witnesses before we go back to first person to wrap things up. The characters tell things they cannot know (such as what Antinous and Hadrian were thinking/feeling). Even statements such as “he told me over a cup of wine” fail to convince. Here, the book falls short on suspending my disbelief. I know the author really wants to tell me about Antinous’/Hadrian’s emotions, but he does so in a way that breaks my fictional dream. I can’t believe a character who is clearly not (just) a character but a tool to tell things that he or she cannot possibly know. One chapter that deals with the Dacians doesn’t have a narrator at all – who’s telling this? We don’t know.
The style can be officious at times, which works for a court setting. I’d have liked it to be toned down a little. We know, for example, that Augustus, despite his drive towards “pure classical Latin” cursed like a sailor in private and spoke a gibberish of Latin and Greek. I’d expect a writer like Suetonius to write with more of a poisoned pen at times – whereas passages dealing with Antinous are more hagiographic than I’d expect from that barbed historian. He was the Perez Hilton of his time, he could easily have been more sarcastic and generally funnier. Roman wit is acerbic and devastating, and the book could have used a bit more of that – it would also be very in character for the narrator.
Overall, the book could use a good cutting – all the self-conscious history, a few characters (we really only need one Special Investigator, and possibly the helper, Surisca) and the repetitions on themes. If it has been explained what the erastes/eromenos relationship is, we don’t need that repeated several times in dialogue. People reading this kind of book can be trusted to remember such things.
In terms of plot, the book works great as a crime novel, far less so as a romance, and I could see a mainstream appeal for the book. Historical crime is big as a genre – much bigger than m/m romance.
So what we see here is a very ambitious debut which has a few, but pervasive craft issues, but it’s strong enough on other counts to still be very readable. There is an undeniable energy in the prose and writing, a fearlessness to tackle that kind of project, imagination, boldness and heartblood. If the issues mentioned above would get fixed, the POV settled, the self-conscious research sorted, the cast streamlined a bit, this would be a great book, a definitive five-star read for me and more likely than not, had potential to make it in the mainstream.