When in Rome
Inceptio and Perfiditas – Alison Morton
Having shown a keen interest in all things Roman since the age of 11, Alison Morton is a self-proclaimed ‘Roman nut’. She recounts how walking on the mosaic floors of the old Roman City in Ampurias started her wondering what a Matriarchal Roman society would have been like. This set the background for her alternative Roman history trilogy, the Roma Nova series. The first book in the trilogy, Inceptio, was published in 2013, with Perfeditas and Successio following soon after.
In the first book of the trilogy Morton introduces the reader to Karen Brown; a seemingly ordinary marketing assistant who lives for her weekends spent volunteering at a New York country park. Her life is turned upside down when, following an altercation with a disruptive park visitor, she finds herself dismissed from her position. This is just the beginning, as Karen’s position as sole heir to her father multi-million dollar company leaves her as the target of government enforcer Jeffery Renschman. Her choice: stay in New York and risk being eliminated by Eastern United States Government, or flee to the mysterious Roma Nova, the European homeland of her late mother. Karen makes the not-so-difficult decision to see what Roma Nova has in store for her, only to find that her troubles have crossed the Atlantic.
The opening few pages of a book are often the most important, from a reader’s perspective at least. As soon as I started reading Inceptio I knew I was going to like it. There was no slow introduction to the story, with Morton instead opting to get straight in with the action. We are introduced to Morton’s main character, initially known as Karen, right after she bloodied the nose of a delinquent adolescent in the county park where she voluntarily spends her weekends. Despite this somewhat lively introduction to Karen, we are made aware straight away that that this is out of character for her: ‘I hadn’t knocked anybody down since junior high, when Albie Jolak had tried to put his hand up my sobbing cousins skirt’.
I found I sympathised with Karen, but not with the Karen in the book as such, but with the Karen she had been, before the book began. In the first chapter and a half, you get a sense of the woman Karen had been before made the mistake of punching the son of the second most powerful man in the country. The old Karen, the Karen before her life was turned upside down, seemed placid, and a little unfazed by life, working for money, without really caring about the job itself, like a shadow in the back of the office. Of course, given the colourful opening of the book, it’s obvious that Karen’s life is about to take a turn, but hard to tell if it will be for better or worse.
I don’t want to go too much into the plot with this review, for fear of revealing any spoilers, of which there are many. Needless to say the storyline that follows is certainly a gripping one. Morton feeds the reader small titbits of information, allowing them to come to the same realisations as the characters, while leaving the final aspects of the plot hidden until the very end, making for a satisfying read. While I liked the story that Morton created for her readers, I do feel that Inceptio serves first a foremost as a settling in novel of sorts, where the reader is introduced to the main characters, and the Roma Novan way of life, paving the way for the other books in the series. I think this is often inevitable for the first book in a series, however, and do not begrudge this fact.
There are several aspects of Morton’s work within this book that I really enjoyed. The first and possibly most important of which is Karen’s character. I think Karen is fantastic, but I also find her horribly frustrating. As Karen makes the journey to Europe she sheds her old identity, and seems to slip effortlessly into her new role as Carina Mitela, granddaughter of one of the most important women in Roma Nova. She is undoubtedly pleased with this turn of events, but finds herself craving freedom. She has gone from having an admittedly fairly mediocre but laissez faire life to being watched over constantly – anyone is bound to be a little overwhelmed by this. Now, the thing I find frustrating about Carina is her choice to sneak around and attempt to escape the eyes of those watching out for her security; it’s just asking for trouble. Of course she is frustrated, but she is also needs security, there are, after all, people trying to kill her – it just seems a little selfish and immature to me. I am torn though, as it is also Carina’s independence, which makes her such a fantastic character. If it wasn’t for her perseverance and drive she wouldn’t have left the EUS, or become the, let’s be honest, kick ass character she develops into. Morton transforms her character from the ordinary marketing assistant who was Karen Brown, to a sassy, character changing, ninja in the form of Carina Mitela, a woman able to rub shoulders with some of the most dangerous characters in Roma Nova, while continuing to serve her family and country. Exactly the kind of woman you would hope to find in a matriarchal society.
Another thing I enjoyed about the book, which I am a real sucker for at times, was the relationship between Carina and Conrad. A blossoming romance I found myself hanging onto throughout the book. My image of Conrad, developed through Karen’s descriptions of this mysterious man, portrayed a Scandinavian Alexander Skarsgård figure, wholly divine.
‘His colleague was more than striking blonde hair long enough to slick back behind his ears. And tall. Several inches taller than me, even. Above a smiling mouth and straight nose marred by a scar, his eyes were tilted slightly upwards, red brown near the iris, green at the edges’.
While I loved the romance between the couple, I also enjoyed the fact that they’re relationship did not follow a traditional path, and although there is a definite love story within Inceptio, it is by no means central to the plot.
On the whole I found Inceptio to be an entertaining read and a great introduction to the world of Roma Nova. I can really appreciate the work that must have gone into creating a book such as this. Morton has left no stone unturned in her creation of the alternate historical timeline, which bore Roma Nova. The book starts with ‘The boring stuff’, for those not familiar with the history of Rome, a category of which I am a member and so found very useful. Morton has also laid out every aspect of the country for the reader to discover in plain sight, the government structure, military, family values, traditions and even holidays, Saturnalia instead of Christmas, the importance of family day, the presence of the family courts and importance of the female figure head of the family. Nothing is left out, which helps to give the reader a very clear picture of this new and exotic place.
In the second book of the trilogy Perfiditas, the reader once again meets with Karen Brown, in her new and transformed state as Captain Carina Mitela of the Praetorian Guard Special Forces. Carina finds herself once more at the receiving end of an attempt on her life, which throws her full force into the depths of an extensive underground conspiracy to topple the government of Roma Nova. Taking matters into her own hands, as usual, Carina calls on some old acquaintances known for operating outside of the law to aid her in her quest to uncover the perpetrators and save her beloved homeland, a move which threatens to ruin both her credibility, and her marriage. The plot thickens, as Carina finds herself at risk, not only from the conspirators who seem determined to ruin her, but also from the very government she strives to protect.
Perfiditas picks up several years after the end of Inceptio, allowing for a more intense storyline, and less settling in. Morton is able to build up more of a storyline, and focus less on background and character development. This gives way to a really gripping plotline. Several times throughout the book things are completely turned upside down, adding a whole new dimension to story and prying a surprised gasp from the mouth of the reader at the end of each chapter.
One of the things I think I liked most about Morton’s second book, though, was the group she created to overthrow the government of Roma Nova. The PFPP – Paterfamilias Patria Potestas are most simply described as ‘a fundamentalist group, believing literally in the original Roman tribal values’. The group want to overthrow the matriarchal system that Roma Nova is founded upon, and are dismissed as living in the past, with one character describing their values as ‘only two and a half thousand years out of date’. The realistic nature of this group really spoke to me; in any society there are those who are anti-establishment, so such groups are bound to arise in some form or another. In a society founded on gender, this seems even more inevitable, as modern times bring forward the desire for equality or, the call for an overhaul of traditional gender roles.
Love once again comes into play in Perfiditas, but in a very different way to Inceptio. When Carina is forced to go undercover after having been framed as a conspirator she is initially devastated at having to distance herself from her family:
‘Normally, I relished the buzz of going undercover on an operation. But no adrenaline raced through my body now. I had no doubt I’d been on the brink of being arrested as a conspirator; I’d been trapped into deserting my post so would be pursued; I was cut off from my family, my children and my love. A cold wave washed through me. Deep down, I had never felt so alone.’
This image of Carina mourning her lost family is not a regular occurrence, however, and she does slip into her undercover role, a little too comfortably, and quickly falls back into allegiance with a group of old, less than legal, acquaintances. As she spends more and more time undercover, Carina becomes increasingly aware that she is developing feelings towards one of her criminal friends, feelings which, when resigned to, threaten to completely overwhelm her.
This aspect of the novel came as quite a surprise. Given the intensity of the relationship between Carina and Conrad in Inceptio, I did not expect her to ever look at anyone else. However, the fact that she does makes her all the more real in my mind. Carina is a person like everyone else; despite the things she achieves, she is not infallible. When this aspect of Carina comes out in the book, it seems almost inevitable that something will slip out of place. In admitting to herself her feelings, Carina lets her guard down, allowing herself to become blind to that which is right in front of her. When the reality of the situation comes to light, Carina is left not only knowing that she missed something, but with a feeling of betrayal so deep it is hard to shake, even as a reader.
Overall, I found that Perfiditas followed nicely in the footsteps on Inceptio, while succeeding in standing on its own two feet. The book has a fast paced and exciting storyline, in which it is easy to become absorbed. Morton grants the reader access to Carina’s inner thoughts, allowing the reader and Carina to puzzle though the mysteries and come to the same conclusions at exactly the same time. I felt breath catch in my throat when I read the lines ‘”I’ll never forget those black eyes.” She caught her breath, “They bored into me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened in the whole of my life”’. Morton ensures that the reader known exactly to whom the black eyes belong, and that you are just as surprised, and heartbroken, as Carina.
Looking at the Roma Nova series as whole so far, there were a few things I found slightly problematic. Firstly, I was slightly irritated by Morton’s reference to non-Roma Novan reality. I picked up on references to Gladiator, James Bond, and Madame Butterfly. While I can’t say these references are incorrect, or shouldn’t be there, as the books are first and foremost fiction, and so Morton has poetic license to do as she pleases, I personally I feel these references were slightly out of place. I don’t feel they added much to the story itself – they were fleeting remarks more than anything, or comparisons in passages, which were already well described – and so I feel would have been better left out.
My other slight gripe, is that I found the books to be slightly too fast paced given the complicated nature of some of the names. Even with the glossary I found it difficult at times to keep up with who was who, and what exactly was happening, I occasionally found myself needing to reread whole chapters. It took me quite a while to read both Inceptio, and Perfiditas I am normally quite a fast reader.
Despite a couple of minor irritations I did find both books to be entertaining and most impeccably written, both from a grammatical and literal viewpoint. I continue to be astonished the level of detail in which each book is written, Roma Nova really is a very thoroughly laid out alternate history series, and for this I applaud Morton. I would recommend any mystery or thriller fans wanting to try something new to look up the Roma Nova series.
Many thanks to Alison Morton for providing me with free review copies of Inception and Perfiditas.