Author: Phyllis T. Smith
Genre: historical fiction
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Two years after Emperor Augustus’s bloody defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, he triumphantly returns to Rome. To his only child, Julia, he brings an unlikely companion—Selene, the daughter of the conquered Egyptian queen and her lover.
Under the watchful eye of Augustus’s wife, Livia, Selene struggles to accept her new home among her parents’ enemies. Bound together by kinship and spilled blood, these three women—Livia, Selene, and Julia—navigate the dangerous world of Rome’s ruling elite, their every move a political strategy, their most intimate decisions in the emperor’s hands.
Always suppressing their own desires for the good of Rome, each must fulfill her role. For astute Livia, this means unwavering fidelity to her all-powerful husband; for sensual Julia, surrender to an arranged marriage and denial of her craving for love and the pleasures of the flesh; for orphaned Selene, choosing between loyalty to her family’s killers and her wish for revenge.
Can they survive Rome’s deadly intrigues, or will they be swept away by the perilous currents of the world’s most powerful empire?
Books like this are why I love going on historical fiction reading marathons. Books that so vividly capture the voices of famous people, the feel of ancient cities, the intrigue of an empire, books like Daughters of Palatine Hill, are perfect examples of why historical fiction remains one of my favorite genres. Like with her debut novel I Am Livia, Phyllis T. Smith is adept at her interpretation of the lives of three of the nascent Roman Empire's most famous women. With care and attention to details both large and small, this author successfully builds a familiar but new view into ancient Rome.
Livia again is a POV character, but this time she shares narration with her stepdaughter, Augustus's daughter Julia, and Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra of Egypt. What I love about both these novels is that they take the time to recreate known history with authenticity but also with originality. These three women have been slandered and accused in the past, but Smith sees each of their stories in a new light. She takes the facts and guesses at the mysteries and then manufactures plotlines that lead to believable interpretations of famous events and people. This is a book that, even though I knew how the story ends, manages to make the story still have tension and suspense.
Daughters of Palatine Hill is a detailed and long novel that covers a long span of time. It can feel like a dense read but the plot and minor plotlines are engaging, include fascinating events, and well-developed over the course of the book. The lives of Roman-beloved Julia and once-a-Roman-captive Selene are so well juxtaposed; Smith takes care to showcase how their lives are similar and also wildly different. It's a fascinating narrative and also helped by the fact that the characters are finely characterized as well. Livia, even without the benefit of reading "her" novel comes to life despite a somewhat smaller role, despite the fact that this is really Julia and Selene's book.
I was impressed with Smith's debut when I read it in 2014 and I am even more impressed with her followup here in 2016. Daughters of Palatine Hill is a well crafted novel from a deft and detail-oriented author; hopefully only the second in a long line of Roman historical fiction centered on maligned or ignored women (Agrippina the Younger, maybe? Messalina? Please?!). It's engaging and crafted with a definite knowledge of the time and people covered and it's a dense read without being boring. Recommended.