Having nursed a passion for the ancient Classical world since childhood I’m always up for a good novel set in those times. Mary Renault played a big part in my childhood as did Robert Graves and Steven Saylor later. I’ve tried other books set in this era by other big name novelists and always been disappointed. The research has been good but the tone or characters didn’t work for me. So I’m pleased to have discovered the novels of Elisabeth Storrs to add to my classical novels shelf.
I read Storrs first book, The Wedding Shroud, last year and couldn’t put it down, (I reviewed it here). I’ve just finished her second book, the sequel called The Golden Dice and I’m thrilled to say I couldn’t put this one down either. I was reminded of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, a book in which the life and actions of Alexander the Great is told through the eyes of a young Persian eunuch who loved Alexander. Storrs book has the same attention to detail, evocative atmosphere, solid characterisation and narrative momentum that made Renault’s books such a wonderful gateway to immersion in the ancient world.
The Wedding Shroud was published in 2010 by Pier 9, a Murdoch Books imprint, part of their ill fated foray into fiction. The publishing climate took a dive in 2011 and Pier 9 cancelled the publication of the sequel, The Golden Dice, which was the second book of a two book contract. These things happen, I guess.
Publishing is a hit and miss industry with talented writers sinking into oblivion every day, so I was very happy to hear Storrs went on to self-publish The Golden Dice on Amazon’s KDP. Plus she’s found greater success with The Wedding Shroud ebook in America than she did here in Australia. It’s always gratifying to see a talented writer find their reading audience, defy the industry and take control of their career.
A natural story teller, Storrs takes us into the strange and exotic world of the ancient Etruscan civilisation, a civilisation which existed just above Rome in what is now known as Umbria and Tuscany. In The Golden Dice, Rome and the Etruscans are at war, and through the clever use of three female characters the reader gets a feel for both sides, particularly from the women’s point of view.
Reading about this ancient conflict and strongly identifying with the main character Caecilia who through marriage becomes Etruscan, one can’t help but be sad. We know what happened to the Etruscans and who won. The Romans, of course. The Roman’s absorbed them into the Republic around the end of the Fourth Century B.C. founding Roman cities on top of razed Etruscan cities. There are significant gaps in what is known about the Etruscan world but Storrs has done the work and effortlessly brings their world, with their strange religions and customs, to life.
A few years ago I was in Orvieto, an Italian town in Umbria, and visited their Musei Archeologici Faina e Civico which houses a large collection of Etruscan material. I remember being struck by the figures on the vases and amphorae, one in particular where the figures of men depicted with horse tails dancing and having sex were depicted with a breathtaking mix of control and vitality.
Museum visitors often go for the big bang stuff, but the decorations on these vases had a greater impact on me than many of the archaeological wonders I’ve seen over the years. So I was interested to find one of the key female characters in The Golden Dice is a potter called Semni, who loves and takes pride in her work. She’s caught up in the conflict and must abandon the work, but like a true artist, she takes a little of that wild creative sensibility with her as she struggles to survive and find a place for herself in a world under threat of invasion and destruction.
Pinna, a Roman girl, finds herself a prostitute at eleven and by the end of the book has used her intelligence and persistence to make it to being the concubine of a Roman general. A long and dangerous journey for a destitute female in Roman times. Both Semni and Pinna are flawed, make the wrong decisions based on their heart or their desires, just like all of us. I was rooting for these two because they didn’t always do the right thing, even though they wanted to. Flawed but likeable characters are hard to pull off but Storrs does it effortlessly.
The main character from The Wedding Shroud, Caecilia, is also, despite the relatively benign Etruscan view of women as compared to the Romans, constrained by her gender and has to use different tactics to protect herself and her children. The men are busy whacking each other to death on the battlefield and carping on about their honour and warrior manliness, but hey guys, these women are brave and resourceful too. They just have to work around the rules you set.
Often it’s the attention to detail that helps bring a story to life and Storrs ability to render the habits and activities of small children so accurately and unsentimentally stood out for me. In the ancient world the business of bearing and raising children defined a woman’s life and Storrs does not neglect the sheer daily logistics of mothering, an area routinely ignored by so many other novelists. It’s these insights into the lives of ancient women that I find so interesting and refreshing.
There is a satisfying baddie, Caecilia’s brother-in-law, an aristocratic priest who possesses a sinuous malevolence. But the other characters who seek to harm Caecilia are victims of circumstance, flawed young men deeply embedded in the Roman war machine where bravery and brutality were must-haves for young males. If war wasn’t your thing, well, you were a disgrace. No going back to uni and retraining in IT. Their lives were as rigidly prescribed as the women’s, except as men they had the better deal.
The complexity of these characters offers the reader a vivid picture of this long ago world. The pacing, language and Storrs confident voice complete another compelling book from this author. I can’t wait for the next book and hope she continues to develop her talent and collect many new readers along the way.