Palatine: The Four Emperors Series: Book I by L. J. Trafford

Book Review by Danielle Kermsley

It is clear from the very beginning that this story will be action-packed, with the punchy opening outlining the intentions of Julius Vindex to overthrow Emperor Nero. This revolution proves to create many interesting courses of action throughout the book, with a sense of anticipation growing to a climax in several parts. The first climatic incident takes us just over halfway through the book, giving the author ample time to set the scene and introduce the characters with careful detail. The suspense is portrayed perfectly, ending with a short and snappy chapter 25 finalizing the revolt through the emotions of various characters.

The sympathies of the reader are quickly set, with the characters portrayed as a mixture of innocence and corruption. The innocent characters of Philo and Teretia are instantly likeable and although they develop subtly with slightly more assertiveness by the end of the book, their innocence and sense of their place within the hierarchy of the Palatine never leaves them. On the other end of the spectrum there are the extravagant and lascivious characters of Nero, Sporus and Tigellinus, who make the most of their life in the Palatine with extreme indulgence and fanciful behavior.

The reader also finds an assortment of characters in between who manipulate their position to gain more power and control. Epaphrodites is a key character, holding ultimate control over the emperor as his secretary with his cunning and tactical actions. The slaves Mina and Alex also represent this manipulation of events, both using the smallest of opportunities to create great advantage for themselves.

The same can also be said of Sabinus, the Praetorian Prefect who uses his influence over his guards to overthrow the Emperor in the name of the Governor of Spain, Galba, and to later attempt to make his own claim as Emperor. It is intriguing to follow the actions of each of these characters, and many more, as they use the politics of the Palatine to their advantage.

An interesting trope throughout the book is the author’s refusal to make any of the characters completely unlikeable, as the positive attributes of even the degenerate Nero and the harsh Sabinus are highlighted. A successful attempt is made at indicating that negative qualities are formed through certain events in an individual’s life. In fact, Part II of the book proves to be transitional for many characters, with events such as the return of Epaphrodites to his loving family and the understanding that develops between Straton, the vicious overseer, and Mina. Although the violence of Straton’s relationship with Philo remains unnerving, the reader comes to sympathize with his lack of ability to articulate himself and his subsequent confusion over what it means to love. This positivity in the most terrible of characters is certainly a positive message to be taken away by the reader.

Sexuality is strong throughout the book, used as a tool of power by both sexes. Men use sex to prove power and exact revenge upon the male ‘owners’ of the women they violate. This is evident from the most atrocious of actions such as the rape of Mina by Juba to get back at her lover Epaphrodites, to the most innocent of contexts where Teretia is encouraged towards a marriage with Philo not for her love of him, but for the social position it could ensure her. Women use their sexuality to gain influence because, as Mina explains to Alex, women need to hold the influence of powerful men to prevent them from the many dangers of the Palatine. It is gratifying to see women refusing to accept what life at the Palatine has to offer for them.

Bawdy, outrageous, yet holding strong moral messages, Palatine is a fantastic book giving the reader an insight into the world of the Roman Emperor Nero and his court.

With the author’s note at the end we are enlightened to how history has largely overlooked Sabinus’ role in the overthrowing of Nero. Thus, an entirely new angle is taken on a much-considered part of history in an incredibly engaging manner.

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