Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2016

Call to Juno, by Elisabeth Storrs

Call to JunoTime for something escapist, I thought, and so I read Call to Juno, third in Elisabeth Storr’s Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy. Before long I was once again immersed in dilemmas of the central character Caecilia Aemilius in Veii, a Roman woman married off as part of a peace treaty to Vel Mastarna, an Etruscan nobleman.   Her counterpart in Rome is Pinna, a former prostitute trying to secure her relationship with the Roman general Camillus.

Sensing the doom inevitable to those of us who know a bit of Roman history, Caecilia faces a crisis of faith:  in her former culture, Romans joined the anonymous shades when they died, but in her adopted culture, the Etruscan religion allows for a reunion of souls.  As with other conflicts between well-ordered but repressive Roman culture and the freedoms of Etruria, Caecilia does not find these dilemmas easy to resolve because she is revolted by the price of devotion to free-and-easy Etruscan gods.  But with four children and a now-beloved husband at risk in the forthcoming war, and the possibility of Roman vengeance for her own betrayal,  the lure of an afterlife becomes compelling.

Pinna’s concerns are more prosaic.  Like her lover, she is ambitious.  She has known poverty and shame, and while she has to keep her past secret, she is not afraid to use it to blackmail those who would expose her.  The way she is able to insinuate herself into political affairs is perhaps not as convincing as Caecilia’s role (because she, after all, is a Queen, whereas Pinna is only a concubine) but it enables her to play a pivotal role in the denouement (and perhaps pave the way for a new series?)

Most of the men are muscular, sexy and resolutely hetero, but Storrs also explores the conflicted hypocrisies of the time regarding homosexuality.   The times were ‘nasty, brutish and short’ and the battle scenes show both sides behave badly, but men both gay and straight are shown to have a tender side even when they are motivated by ambition and intrigue.

The personal dilemmas of the main characters play out through the overarching themes of fidelity and adaptability to circumstances.  Caecilia has family in Rome and in Veii; she has allegiance to the culture, religion and traditions of both cities.  Pinna’s loyalty to the men who have rescued her from degradation tests her values.  Their men, Vel Mastarna and Camillus, take different positions along the continuum of loyalty to the state and fidelity to the heart, but both are motivated by ambition and power.  The characterisation of the women is richer, because the narration focusses on their point of view, but not at the expense of authenticity: history is on the side of the male characters.

As in The Golden Dice Storrs has a tendency to slightly overdo the period terminology, and this novel also has to bear the weight of backgrounding from the previous titles in the trilogy.  I suppose this is always a burden for series: each book needs to read independently of the others, but this last in the series is well over 500 pages long and in places it loses its narrative drive.  However, the themes of jealousy, ambition, revenge and fidelity carry it through to a finale which is surprisingly satisfying even though Rome triumphs, as it must.

Author: Elisabeth Storrs
Title: Call to Juno
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781503951952
Source: review copy courtesy of the author

Availability

Fishpond: Call to Juno (A Tale of Ancient Rome)


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