This is one of the finest historical novels that I’ve ever read. It was an utter joy. That is all.
Good reading, folks!
This is a remarkable piece of fiction. It is told as a series of epistles that chronicle the career of Octavius Caesar. Friends and enemies, admirers and detractors, write letters and pen memoirs that give their take on his career. The effect is that the character of Augustus in the shadows between these letters. It’s rather like creating a portrait by putting sticky notes in close formation on a wall and spraying with paint. The portrait is what’s left when you remove the notes.
It also means that Williams can’t fall into the trap of telling us what the character is feeling. He *must* show us. At best, we can be told what the main character says. It also adds a layer between the reader and the action which gives just the right touch of remoteness. It does not feel contemporary, but not because it’s unnecessarily archaic in style.
Williams divides the work into three books of very uneven length. The first covers his his rise to power, and the second his consolidation of it. Revealed like a mosaic laid by many hands, we see a man who seems most alive discussing philosophy and poetry. Yet he commanded the respect of Julius Caesar’s veteran legionaries and defeated those close to Caesar, as well as Caesar’s enemies. Williams deftly displays a talent for adopting multiple voices. We hear the Agrippa, the gruff soldier, Cicero the orator and jurist, and Augustus’ daughter, Julia.
Apart from a very brief Senate decree, we don’t hear the voice of Augustus at all until the final book. His letter, written from his yacht, while making his final voyage deeply reflective and philosophical. It is a voice weary from power, but resigned to its fate. We hear a voice that loved deeply and grieved frequently. It reminded me very much of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. There is no higher praise that I could give it.
This is quite simply a beautifully written piece. I loved every exquisite page. If you have no interest in the period, or in historical fiction in general, you may find that it doesn’t quite resonate with you. But persevere. I have a few pieces of fiction that I re-read every few years; The Lord of the Rings, The Dispossessed, Les Miserables. And now I have another.