(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)
A.D. 69. Nero is dead.
The Roman Empire is up for the taking. With bloodshed spilling out of the palace and into the streets of Rome, chaos has become the status quo. The Year of Four Emperors will change everything—especially the lives of two sisters with a very personal stake in the outcome….
Elegant and ambitious, Cornelia embodies the essence of the perfect Roman wife. She lives to one day see her loyal husband as Emperor. Her sister, Marcella, is more withdrawn, content to witness history rather than make it. Even so, Marcella has her share of distinguished suitors, from a cutthroat contender for the throne to a politician’s son who swears that someday he will be Emperor.
But when a bloody coup turns their world upside down, Cornelia and Marcella—along with their cousins, one a collector of husbands and lovers, the other a horse-mad beauty with no interest in romance—must maneuver carefully just to stay alive. As Cornelia tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered dreams, Marcella discovers a hidden talent for influencing the most powerful men in Rome. In the end, though, there can only be one Emperor … and one Empress.
In order of publication, Daughters of Rome is technically the second book in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome series but chronologically it is the first. It’s a sort of prequel and you will recognize some of the characters we meet in Mistress of Rome except for the fact that they’re a couple of decades younger. And the story takes place not in the relative stability of Domitian’s reign but the violent chaos that was the Year of the Four Emperors. You would think that by virtue of having more drama (which Kate Quinn excels at writing about) the story itself would be better. The problem is, it isn’t. The strength of the first book was in its characters, notably Thea, but in this second book the characters really are the weakness.
First off, in true Roman fashion there are four cousins, all named Cornelia because they’re from the wealthy and influential Cornelii family. Kate Quinn helpfully gives us nicknames for them all (the eldest Cornelia is the only one actually called by her name) and it does take a little bit to get used to. However, after a couple of chapters it’s pretty easy to get everyone all organized because their personalities are fairly distinct. Cornelia is the ideal senator’s wife, Marcella is a bookish woman who just wants to write history, Lollia has the most unfortunate string of marriages imaginable and Diana, the youngest, is horse crazy. We do get to see the chaos from the eyes of all four of the sisters: the changing alliances, the marriage swapping, the crass power grabs not even bothered to be cloaked in lofty ideals, etc. The Year of the Four Emperors was a horrifying time to be a Roman, particularly since backing one person meant glory one day and committing suicide while on the run the next. Against this horrific background, you’d think that the characters would particularly stand out.
The problem is that none of the characters stand out; they didn’t have that authenticity that made Thea such a powerful, moving character. Diana is the only one who is vaguely believable in her actions but the idea that she’d be a female charioteer is just ludicrous. Roman women were generally more free than Greek women but they certainly weren’t that free, especially if they were from one of the main families in Rome. Lollia’s string of husbands is definitely believable but even though she finds love in an unusual place I never really connected with her and her plight. Like Marcella, her character felt rather hollow. Marcella’s character didn’t ring true to me because even though she’s a bookworm much like myself, she gets into all of these situations that feel like they’re the direct result of Kate Quinn’s manipulation of historical fact. It doesn’t feel natural that she finds herself in the midst of all of this trouble as it should; it feels forced and as such her character doesn’t grow in the way you would expect it to. Cornelia, the eldest of the four cousins and sister of Marcella, is a bland Roman matron who also finds love in an unexpected place. She at least is a believable character and I could sort of connect to her plight.
While the plot was certainly fast-paced and interesting (how could the Year of the Four Emperors not be, though?), it was surprisingly unsatisfying. Kate Quinn uses the most gossipy of all the gossipy sources on Roman history and takes the worst of said gossip to portray each emperor as a caricature of what they probably really were. This is not surprising given her portrayal of Domitian as a total sadist in the Marquis de Sade mold but it does make it seem like she’s going for the most drama no matter the historical reality. Galba was a stick in the mud, Otho was a jealous brooding sort of hedonist and Vitellius was a total glutton/hedonist but I think Quinn takes things just a little too far and it seems like she’s playing things up for her audience. As some people on Goodreads mentioned, it makes it feel like you’re reading The Real Housewives of Ancient Rome. Really, the story would be just as good if she toned down some of the drama and didn’t rely so heavily on Flavian-biased historians.
Overall, I felt that compared to Mistress of Rome was a much better book than her second book. That’s kind of shocking considering it was her debut but it was certainly much more satisfying than Daughters of Rome, which ends so randomly and incomprehensibly that I was left scratching my head in disbelief at the actions of three of the four sisters. There were a lot of good things happening in this book, mainly the portrayal of the chaotic events and the uncertainty that gripped all of Rome but on the character front it was the most unsatisfying book I’ve ever read by Kate Quinn. It’s just a complete disappointment to me, considering the fact that I loved her Borgia Chronicles and her debut novel. Really, the only thing that can adequately express my feelings toward this book is the word ‘meh’.
I give this book 2/5 stars.