I’ve been reading some rather grim books lately, so The Golden Dice was a welcome change! Elisabeth Storrs writes historical fiction set in the days of Ancient Rome, and since I really enjoyed The Wedding Shroud – A Tale of Ancient Rome (see my review), I was keen to read the sequel…
Just last week I met a woman whose husband was of German-Russian parentage and we had a brief discussion about how unusual that was, given the enmity that both sides might still harbour for WW2 atrocities. It reminded me of neighbours I once had, a Palestinian happily married to an Israeli. It takes a remarkable love to rise above political and cultural hostilities like that, but it’s also interesting to consider the circumstances in which such a couple might meet, how their initial reservations might be overcome, and how their ongoing relationship is negotiated in their community, whichever it might be.
In The Wedding Shroud Elisabeth Storrs considered the introductory phase of such a relationship. The central character Caecilia is a Roman noblewoman who is used to barter peace through a diplomatic marriage with Vel Mastarma of the neighbouring Etruscans. In her absorbing first novel Storrs showed how the barriers between them eventually fell, though not without cost. In this sequel, The Golden Dice, she dissects this relationship as the peace breaks down and Caecilia’s love for her husband is tested against her conflicted loyalty to Rome. Time and again I found myself thinking of Helen of Troy, a woman who also transgressed ideas about loyalty to kin and country for the sake of a man, and who must have engendered hostility in both her homeland and her adopted home.
The setting for the story, Ancient Rome and Etruria, is an exotic choice for historical fiction, but the elements of the story are universal. Through the lives of three women, Caecilia the aristocrat, Semni the would-be artist, and Pinna, a whore seeking to transcend her lowly status, Storr fills her canvas with the complexities of human emotion: love, trust, and loyalty; hate, envy, and revenge. With each of the characters, male and female, she dissects contrasting values, using the cultural differences between Etruria and Rome to show the psychological torment of conflicting loyalties.
One of the dilemmas faced by contemporary authors writing historical fiction is that the role of women was usually so circumscribed that authenticity is compromised if the desire to create strong female characters results in them behaving in ways that are anachronistic. In keeping with her historical period, Storrs is able to avoid this peril because there were fewer restrictions on women in Etruscan society, making it more appealing to Caecilia and easing her betrayal of Rome. She finds herself attracted to the Etruscans’ more flexible permissiveness, its lively colours and its music, though she also clings to her more dignified Roman persona and she is revolted by the darker side of its religious rituals. There are aspects of the more ordered traditions of Rome that she discreetly values, and occasionally her nostalgia for Roman decorum causes hostility in her new home. With her husband away at war she is vulnerable to hatred and suspicion as well as a conflicted heart.
Occasionally – especially in the early chapters – the weight of Roman-Etruscan terminology gets in the way of smooth reading, and there were times when I had to consult the glossary at the back. But apart from occasional hurdles like ‘tufa walls’ (i.e. made of limestone) and the ‘aulos’ (a musical instrument) it doesn’t take long to absorb the new vocabulary, and the story gathers a compelling momentum.
The intrigues are beautifully crafted. All the women take risks of one sort or another, but Pinna’s upward mobility seems the most perilous of all – until the author reminds us of the likely fate of any woman at the hands of a victorious enemy:
Pinna stared at the knife, afraid to touch it. ‘I don’t think I could kill someone.’
Pressing the weapon into her palm, he closed her fingers around it. ‘No, it is to kill yourself.’
Taking two of her fingers he guided them to her throat. ‘You must cut here.’ He pressed against the pulse. ‘Make sure your stroke is firm enough to slice through muscle and artery, not just flesh.’
The practicality of horror chilled her. ‘I don’t think I could do it.’
He gripped her hand. ‘There will be more than one of them, you know. Bloodlust is infectious. And they will not stop at rape.’ (p. 346)
There was brutishness on both sides, and the veneer of civility and order relied on good leadership, a quality always at risk when there are men and women of ambition in the ring. Anger, revenge and ambition motivate Caecilia’s most powerful enemies, but it is a naïve religious fanatic in her own household who causes the greatest danger.
The Golden Dice is a great sequel to The Wedding Shroud and I am hopeful that there will be more from this talented author.
You can read more about the historical background and also some sample excerpts at Elisabeth Storrs’ website.
A word about the publishing history of this novel. My review policy makes it very clear that I do not accept self-published books for review. It’s not just that I value my reading time too much to risk reading books which are poorly conceived and edited, it’s also that (having had some woeful experiences with self-published books) I value the work that editors do, and my stance is a way of asserting their importance and supporting their ongoing role in the publishing industry. However, I have made a one-off exception with this novel because Elisabeth is a previously published author of considerable merit and I had asked her to let me know when her sequel was published. As it happened, through no fault of her own, Elisabeth’s contract with the publisher of the sequel fell through, and so she decided to publish independently. However, what made me agree to read her book notwithstanding was her professional approach: she engaged on a freelance basis the editor from the original publisher so that I felt confident that the book had been through the rigorous process that professional editing provides.
Author: Elisabeth Storrs
Title: The Golden Dice
Publisher: Cornelian Press 2013
Source: review copy courtesy of the author