Written by Annelise Freisenbruch — Rome, 70 BC and life for Hortensia, daughter of the famous orator Hortensius, should be going along the privileged path laid out for her. However Hortensia (also referred to by her nickname, Horty) isn’t your average Roman woman. She has inherited her father’s vocal skills and strength of character and isn’t comfortable in the shadows.
Hortensia stumbles across a treacherous plot that, should it succeed, will shake the Roman Republic to its core. First a senator bleeds to death, then a Vestal Virgin is murdered, her corpse dragged from the Tiber. Hortensia is convinced these events are connected. However, no-one is willing to listen to her, a mere woman. The only person who truly believes her is a slave, Lucrio, an ex-gladiator who saved her from death when she was a child. But Lucrio has his own scores to settle. When he was a child his family was killed by a mystery Roman soldier and the desire for revenge has accompanied him for the rest of his life. Lucrio thinks the soldier resides in Rome and spends every night tracking him down.
Her father, Hortensius, is distracted, his attention engaged in a court case that may break his reputation. He is up against the upstart Cicero and, from the opening gambit Hortensius seems destined to lose. But Hortensia discovers her father may be involved in the plot and she has some terrible choices to make…
Blood in the Tiber is the author’s debut fiction novel, however she has previously published The First Ladies of Rome, a non-fiction history of Rome’s empresses. So Freisenbruch, a teacher of Latin and classics, knows her subject and frankly this stands out front and centre throughout Blood in the Tiber. Her descriptions of the location, the players and day to day life are powerful, rich and almost constant in their appearance. The author’s highest achievement is the development of the location for the plot – Rome. The background is so well painted that the city could itself be described as a character. The remaining characterisation is also powerful too, but then again we are dealing with some of Rome’s largest historical figures – Crassus, Cicero, Julius Caeser and Pompey among them.
Activities and events leading towards the crime occur in fits and starts, in between which the city, its people and its culture are pushed to the forefront whilst the crime retreats. Then there’s the plot itself. The author needed to construct something sufficiently large and meaningful, but could be explained against the backdrop of actual historical events. Freisenbruch handles this well, drawing events together in a satisfying and strong conclusion.
The crux of this novel is, dare I say it, the female in a male dominated society. Women are supposed to know their place – that being said there were plenty of powerful female figures in Roman society. What’s immediately evident is that irrespective of her sex, Hortensia is above average. She’s smart, vocally gifted and willing to take a risk, in particular to make the point that women are equal to men. This is immediately demonstrated in the opening chapters which occur four years before the main event. These also introduce a couple of the future major players, such as Crassus, and she comes into contact with the pivotal Lucrio.
The only criticism would be that sometimes the desire to develop rich language becomes a little too strong. For example, rather than using ‘said’ after speech Hortensia and others are described as muttering, pressing, repeating etc. It can prove distracting. Overall this is a very assured, well-written debut that deserves to be read.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars