Travelling with various air planes and trains through Italy left me with time to read Lindsey Davis' newest novel, Master and God
. Now Lindsey Davis is most famous for her series of Roman mysteries centered around one Marcus Didius Falco, but she also writes non-Falco historical novels, of which this, as far as I know, is the third. The first one, The Course of Honour
, about Caenis, the slavegirl-going-freedwoman who starts out working for Antonia and ends up as Vespasian's life long lover, I enjoyed but fund it oddly dry for what is definitely an interesting subject. The second one, Rebels and Traitors
, set during the English Civil War I loved until the last 40 pages or so, which was when the story took a turn that felt like an incredibly let down and very bizarre. But until then, it was everything I had hoped the tv series The Devil's Whore
would be and wasn't, the story of an interesting determined woman making her way between parties during the Civil War, with characters from both sides written more dimensionally and sympathetically. Now, with Master and God
she is back in the Rome of the Flavians again. If you know your history, this is what Domitian called himself - dominus et deus - and the book covers his reign, though the main characters are two more or less invented ones, Gaius Vinius Clodianus (spending most of the book as a Pretorian) and Flavia Lucilla (hairdresser and freedwoman of the Flavians). They're the archetypical Davis pairing of wise-cracking guy and no-nonsense, unimpressed woman, and this time around, the result is enjoyable throughout the novel, so I don't always buy the obstacles Davis throws in their path.
Now, the the third volume of what is one of my all time favourite trilogy of historical novels by Lion Feuchtwanger also deals with the reign of Domitian, and is a vivid and chilling depiction of a dictatorship written during the Third Reich which nonetheless manages to avoid making Domitian into a Hitler avatar (which means he's a far better drawn character than Feuchtwanger's deliberate Hitler avatar in another novel he wrote at the same time, The False Nero
), so my standard of writing for this era was pretty high. Nonetheless, Lindsey Davis managed to convincingly present her own version. Domitian, like Caligula, Nero or Caracalla, became a byword for the mad, bad and dangerous to know type of emperor, though not having the obvious madness of Caligula or the theatricalness of Nero (which reminds me: in Naples they show up the remains of the theatre where Nero performed - th roughout an earthquake, no less, where he insisted the audience was to stay in order not to miss his performance), he doesn't get nearly as much fictional treatment. What surprised me is that Davis is subtle about him. As opposed to his appearance in her Falco novels, where he is already a villain during the reign of his father, her take on Domitian here is somewhat different; he starts out as a mixture of good and bad, and actually quite competent as an emperor, but the combination of paranoia, resentments from days past and absolute power with no more checks and balances combine to turn him and the Rome he rules more and more into a nightmare. Because these days inevitably I have the cinematic Marvelverse on the brain, it hit me that Davis' Domitian is in many ways Loki without the fannish woobie glasses, if, you know, Loki were to actually succeed/remain successful, aka how his uncontested rulership would turn out. Older brother (Titus) with military success, beloved by many, much closer to their father, father preferring same, while self is looked at as a sly schemer by social circle? Check. Traumatic event changing world view? (Domitian nearly gets roasted while his uncle is torn apart by the mob during the year of the four emperors.) Check. Short taste of rulership until Dad and Older Brother take it away again? (After Vespasian, still campaigning with Titus in Judea, is voted Emperor, 18 years old Domitian got to represent him in Rome until Vespasian was back in Italy.) And the narrative as well as Gaius Vinius isn't without sympathy for Domitian on that score, but it at no point excuses him for what he does therafter, and when Lucilla, who is an immensely adaptable survivor, finally says "whatever it takes, he has to be stopped", you're more than with her.
If I have one complaint, it's that Davis' auctorial voice, which is that of an Olympian, all-knowing narrator who occasionally points out that, for example, governor Trajan is going to end up as an emperor himself, is a bit of an odd choice, not least because such interjections are few and far; had she chosen to stick to the usual third person personal narrative, with no very occasional comments, it would have been just as effective. All in all: a good novel, and so far her best non-Falco one.
Speaking of avatars, history, fictionalisations of same and Marvelverse cross connections, Shakespeare's histories have been filmed yet again, and here's Tom Hiddleston as Hal and Jeremy Irons as Henry IV from Henry IV, Part I
. Colour me amused that the clip they choose is Hal getting chewed out by his father, not, say, any of the many other scenes where Hal is being in control and having a go at Falstaff. Maybe I'm paranoid (though as Domitian would say, it's not paranoia if they're really after you), but imo the choice reflects the popularity of Hiddleston's most successful role. Anyway, here they are:
will appreciate that the way with which Irons!Henry IV rants about the late cousin Richard's behaviour allows for all sorts of subtext.
Lastly, some links: The Skins
: a great multifandom vid about the various doppelgangers, clones and other selves haunting sci fi and fantasy. Creepy fun. Avengers
:To shawarma or not to shawarma
: Natasha’s still getting used to rubbing shoulders with living legends. One of the terrific results of The Avengers
fandom post-movie release is that the film makes any combination of characters interacting interesting, and the resulting fanfic actually reflects that. Here, we get the combination of Natasha and Steve Rogers, with the rest of the ensemble making strong appearances as well.