Book review: Master and God by Lindsey Davis

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Some novels impress with their research, others with their gripping storyline and others simply because they entertain.

Lindsey Davis, a born raconteur best known for her superb mystery series featuring Roman detective Falco, achieves all three as she dips into the ancient past once more to bring us this gripping stand-alone novel set during the reign of the paranoid Emperor Domitian in the first century AD.

An alluring mix of fact and fiction, history, romance and suspense, Master and God is full of Davis’s trademark dry humour, diverse cast list and eye for those enthralling little details that bring the past to life with such power and vibrancy.

As ever, Davis’s meticulous research gives her epic story a compelling credibility whether she is describing the mores of imperial tyranny or sweeping us off to Domitian’s fortress villa at Alba Longa and the remote camps of his Dacian enemies in central Europe.

Domitian was a restless, brooding maniac who loved nothing better than slaughtering all those he considered to be his opponents, and found his fun at home by killing flies with the point of his pen.

His descent into madness and megalomania forms the thrilling backdrop to a love affair between one of the emperor’s Praetorian Guard and a young woman who is hairdresser and confidante to the wealthy and privileged women of Rome.

Mentally damaged by a trauma in his childhood and a gnawing fear that he is unloved, Domitian hungrily snatches the throne when his older brother Titus dies suddenly from a fever.

Many scoff at the physically unprepossessing new emperor but he surprises the cynics by launching into a massive rebuilding programme in Rome, shores up trade, encourages the arts and even achieves success in war.

But soon his plans and ambitions are overshadowed by his increasing isolation and paranoia which engenders suspicion, jealousy and fear. Friends become enemies, and those who come into contact with him frequently go missing.

Soldier Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a battle-scarred hero who likes to keep a low profile, is reluctantly promoted to the illustrious Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s personal bodyguards, but soon finds himself an unwilling party to the emperor’s deadly delusions.

Away from the imperial palace, he lodges in the same apartment as Lucilla, a clever and independent-minded imperial hairdresser whose political opinions have been influenced by contacts with Rome’s political and artistic elite.

As their relationship blossoms, they endeavour to carve out a future together but are foiled by the unendurable whims and wiles of the vindictive Domitian.

Well placed to witness the dangerous excesses of the unstable imperial ruler, they are also close enough to aid and abet those who would stop his deadly rampage forever...

Master and God proves to be the very best kind of history lesson ... full of fascinating facts about life in ancient Rome, alive with the brutal politics that made the empire tick and with a passionate and very human love story at its fast-beating heart.

Davis’s sense of time and place never falters, and yet the story of Gaius and Lucilla will resonate with modern readers always eager to learn more about the ancients’ parallels with the ambitions, fears and concerns of contemporary society.

Buoyed by her success here, it’s to be hoped the very talented Ms Davis will be bringing us more of these intelligent, darkly funny and thoroughly enjoyable standalone novels.

(Hodder & Stoughton, hardback, £18.99)