14 January, 2010

The Legate’s Daughter, by Wallace Breem. Book review

First published 1974. Edition reviewed: Phoenix, 2005, ISBN 0-75381-895-7. 310 pages.

The Legate’s Daughter is set in Rome and Mauretania (North Africa) in 24 BC, against the background of a fictional political intrigue in the reign of Emperor Augustus. Several secondary characters are historical figures, including Augustus’ wife Livia and daughter Julia, King Juba of Mauretania and his wife Cleopatra Selene (daughter of Cleopatra of Egypt and Mark Antony), and various important Roman senators including Marcus Agrippa. All the main characters are fictional.

Augustus is ill and has no heir, and the senators of Rome are plotting in factions to gain the succession. When a senior Roman legate in distant Spain is killed and his daughter kidnapped, it is a serious embarrassment to Augustus’ government. Curtius Rufus, a failed centurion with a taste for gambling, drink, women and trouble, is despatched by Marcus Agrippa to find and rescue the girl. Together with his friend, a Greek secretary and aspiring poet called Criton, and a reluctant detachment of Praetorian Guards, he arrives at the court of King Juba and Queen Cleopatra Selene in Mauretania. Curtius soon discovers that all is not what it seems, as he uncovers a complex web of intrigue and deceit whose threads reach not only to the highest levels of the Mauretanian court but all the way to Rome itself.

The Legate’s Daughter is a political thriller, and doesn’t have the military setting or the action of Wallace Breem’s famous The Eagle in the Snow. The plot is driven by the slow disentangling of layer upon layer of lies and half-truths, and Curtius Rufus is frequently in the dark and having to guess at what is really going on. People speak in veiled allusions and cryptic references, which may (or may not) become clear in time. As a result, the reader needs to be alert to every detail and nuance to have any chance of following the story. I read the book twice before I pieced some of the plot together, and I suspect there are still intricacies that I missed. This is a book that needs concentration; think John le Carre rather than Simon Scarrow.

The street scenes are superb, both in Rome and North Africa. Sharply drawn vignettes bring the bustle and variety of a big city to vivid life, such as the beggar boys waiting like starlings for the baker to overload his cart so they can grab the spilled bread without being accused of stealing. The political shenanigans in Rome and in North Africa are well, if slowly, brought out (provided you pay attention), and an atmosphere of threat and menace builds gradually to the tense climax.

Despite the title, the legate’s daughter herself is hardly mentioned for the first third of the book, and appears only in a brief and rather pathetic glimpse towards the end. The focus of the story is Curtius Rufus, and although the narrative is in third person it’s mainly his viewpoint that the reader sees. Curtius is intriguing and contradictory, always wanting the opposite of what he presently has. When he has a steady job he is bored and resents its restrictions; when he loses the job he doesn’t know what to do with himself. When on his mission in North Africa he longs for his irresponsible life in Rome; when living on his wits in Rome he yearns for the stability of a respected role. Clearly very able when he chooses, as shown when he has to carry out emergency repairs to an aqueduct in imminent danger of collapse, he has nevertheless managed to fail at every career he has tried. He treats women badly, but somehow remains irresistibly attractive to them. The ending, like the rest of the book, is ambiguous, with more questions than answers: will Curtius make a new start, with a respectable job and the love of a good woman, or will he drift back to his precarious life in the slums?

Tense political thriller set in Ancient Rome, with layer upon layer of deceit, intrigue, plot and counter-plot.


Gabriele Campbell said...

I should check that out - despite the mystery plot, lol. I've liked Eagle in the Snow.

Unknown said...

As I love all things relating to Cleopatra Selene and Juba II, I'm totally getting this book. Thanks for the recommendation.

Kathryn Warner said...

Sounds like a really interesting novel. I enjoy political thrillers, and with an accurate and well-drawn historical background to boot - will definitely have to read this one!

Rick said...

Probably it is only the mystery plot that makes me immediately compare and contrast Curtius Rufus with M. Didius Falco.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

I love this novel almost as much as Eagle In The Snow. I first read it years ago and second what you say about its intricacies but it's well worth another read and all the more rewarding for needing the reader to concentrate - I love novels like that when I'm in the mood: they make me feel like an active rather than a passive reader. Curtius Rufus is an appealingly flawed character. As you say, it's more le Carre than Scarrow.

Carla said...

Gabriele - it's more of a thriller than a mystery in the whodunnit sense of the word. If you liked Breem's other novels I'd say this is well worth a try.

Stephanie - Hello and welcome! Cleopatra Selene and Juba are quite different in this book to their portrayal in Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter, and they are secondary characters rather than the main focus. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts if you read The Legate's Daughter.

Alianore - it's well worth reading, and if you do read it let me know what you think.

Rick - it's much darker and more ambiguous than Falco, and you don't get a gag on every page :-)

Sarah - Yes, I agree - you feel much more involved when you have to work things out for yourself, provided you have the time and mental energy available to concentrate! It's one I intend to re-read again; I expect to see yet more things I missed on previous times round.

Kathryn Warner said...

I will do, Carla! I'm intending to go over to Amazon later to order it. By the way, I recently read Catherine Hanley's Sins of the Father after reading your review of it a while back, and loved it.

Carla said...

Alianore - I'll look forward to your thoughts :-) That's great that you enjoyed Sins of the Fathers, and I'm delighted my review pointed you to it. If you happen to feel like putting a review on Amazon, I'm sure Catherine Hanley would be very pleased!