This is the first book I have ever read that is told almost completely in dialogue. There is very little description or narration, only just enough, and I must say, with a few minor exceptions, it works beautifully. This author’s gift is dialogue; she must have realized that at some point and she uses it brilliantly. It may well be the best book I have ever read when it comes to razor-like crystalline flow of conversation. So much character and setting comes through simply by the way these people converse. Impressive, and it’s clear the author feels very much at home and comfortable with these historical figures.
Axios is a fast read, not surprising, as dialogue reads more quickly than narration. I was swiftly drawn in to the fate of the protagonists, both good and bad. When the worst thing that can happen happens to Claudia Acte–a trained hetairi, Greek by birth and a slave-prostitute in Rome–(I grew quite fond of how she is almost always called by her full name, Claudia Acte) I was in tears. Her despair rang clear through me; I identified with her suffering as completely as though it was happening to me. I could imagine it all too well, every time she screamed, “Is it finished yet?” Tigellinus is an amazing jerk: even when he finally discovers why she fell into misery so profound only death could give relief, he doesn’t seem to really care, or seem to comprehend his part in it. I’m still not sure if he didn’t do it deliberately. After all, one of the first things he ever says to her is: “Reason? You have just been thrust from the gilded bowers of Reason into the twisted world of Survival. Learn quickly, Claudia Acte!” (I love that line.)
Axios is pure historical fiction. I have never studied Roman history, but the book appears to follow the lives of Nero, Tigellinus, Capito, Poppaea, Claudia Acte, and others of historical record.
Even if you aren’t a fan of straight historical fiction, or of Roman debauchery, or of Christian over-and-undertones, (I fall into all three categories) I can confidently recommend this book. The author paints all three aspects with a light brush, interweaving them together so that none takes precedence. Never did I feel I was being preached to or guided toward some particular belief. She leaves all that to each individual reader. Nero, in particular, is as I have always imagined him. Emotional, immature, selfish, cruel but thinking of himself as the opposite. A baby wearing a crown! He was wonderfully drawn. Tigellinus? I cannot to this moment decide how I feel about him. The first impression given lingered so that later, it was hard to see him in a more kindly light.
My only minor criticism would be that I needed a little more character development. Mostly I feel I can see the protagonists clearly, but still, I needed a little more, especially for Tigellinus, who came across cynical in the extreme, yet seemed to soften somehow, later, but I wasn’t quite sure how, or why. Acte, too, keeps much of herself hidden, even from the reader. I also hoped for a little more of Claudia Acte’s child, a daughter sent to Spain, but we never hear whether they were ever able to meet.
At the other end of the spectrum is the scene of the Great Fire, of which we have all heard something while in school. (“Nero sang while Rome burned.”) This scene was skillfully written. I visualized it all as I rode along with Tigellinus and his man Monsanus, who fought their way into the heat and danger searching for Claudia Acte. Also there is a scene of the classic Roman torture and death in the arena: this, too, was so skillfully written that I sadly envisioned it in detail.
I cannot say whether the author has a feminist intent, but for me, reading the way women and men treated each other in this era, a feminist manifesto shines through. On the one end, far too much of everything creates a sense of cheapness to life. On the other, life is a constant struggle to survive. Claudia Acte is envious of the poverty-stricken slaves who have nothing of their own. “They laughed, they gossiped. And when they were done they departed for their cramped, airless apartments over the stables. Acte listened to them. How could it be? They dwelt amidst squalor and severe deprivation, and yet they laughed. She sat amidst wealth and splendor and endured untold misery.” There seems to be very little in the way of honor, fidelity, or trust in Nero’s Rome. Simply everyone is at risk for all manner of evil, reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies.” One line stays with me: “Gods, Capito, didn’t you bring something to stuff in her mouth?” Capito replies, “I never stir without it. It’s my fist.”