REVIEW SUMMARY: An excellent quartet of stories with strong female characters, and Rome. Romanpunk!
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Classics expert Tansy Rayner Roberts brings four Roman themed stories with strong women, and monsters across 2 millennia of time.
PROS: Rome themed fiction! Dry wit, clever writing, excellent linking across the four stories.
CONS: The size of the collection works against it.
BOTTOM LINE: Ave, Augusta!
Twelfth Planet Press is a small press in Australia dedicated to bringing genre short stories to the world. The rules and boundaries of the Twelfth Planet Press series are as formal as a sonnet: 4 original stories, with a total of 40,000 words. Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Love and Romanpunk is one of the early volumes of the series, and are a secret, alternate history of Roman from the early Empire to the near future with two crucial twists: The main characters are (nearly) all women, and Roberts is willing to portray Roman matters, and central Roman matters at that, unapologetically in a fantastic light.
Female characters and the place of women in the Roman Empire is a bugbear of a problem for writers who want to base their fantasy in the Roman Empire. The social dynamics of the Roman family means that female characters can be easily marginalized or forgotten, and the exceptions demonized and portrayed in a negative light. And that’s just what I have found in histories of Rome, to say nothing of fictional portrayals.
It seems to me that part of the author’s mission is to provide a corrective in this collection of fantasy stories. The conceit of the four stories is that the women of the Julio-Claudian family (the family responsible for Julius Ceasar and the first Emperors of Rome) are in the business of monster hunting. Given that their own family is riven with monsters of both the human and supernatural variety, they have plenty of examples close at hand. So, this collection is willing to put the fantasy into the Eternal City and the Imperial Family itself, rather than keeping it on the margins or sticking to historical fiction. Rome deserves better, and the author provides it.
The four stories in Love and Romanpunk are Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary, Lamia Victoriana, The Patrician, and Last of the Romanpunks.
Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary is the “lost” Dictionary of the Khazars-like mini guide to various supernatural monsters in and around the Roman Empire, as written by Julia. Julia Agrippina is the great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, sister to Caligula, and eventually was married to her uncle, Emperor Claudius. She gets a bad rap in a lot of the history because of her attempts to escape the strictures of her society. This fantasy keeps her historical role (which I have only scratched the surface of, she’s the center of a lot of early history around the Julio-Claudians), and adds the supernatural aspects as well.
Lamia Victoriana brings us to the 19th century, and introduces us to two sisters, Mary and Frances, who fall in with some poets. Some very, very dangerous poets. I hesitate to describe too much about this story, finding out who Mary is turns out to be some of the pleasure of this shortest story in the collection.
The Patrician takes us to a near future Roman theme park in the Australian Desert. Clea Majora, one of the historical re-enactors, discovers that the legacy and heritage of the monster-fighting Julias is not dead, and that’s a very good thing. The Patrician is a slice across the long life of a character and might be the best of the quartet in terms of writing, humor, theme and execution.
Finally, in Last of the Romanpunks, set some years after the end of the life of Clea, takes place aboard a zeppelin, as the monster hunting legacy of the Julias, calling back to the first story in the volume, comes to the ultimate test. This story, unlike the other three, ostensibly has a male protagonist seemingly unrelated to the Julias, but don’t let that fool you. The author has a couple of tricks up her sleeve.
I enjoyed the entire collection immensely. Roberts has a dry sense of humor and wit, the writing is very well done and enjoyable, and hey, strong female Julias (by blood or in spirit). I’ve been salivating for a chance to read this book since I first heard the title, and despite my high hopes and expectations, the book did not disappoint.
Rayner knows of what she writes. Her Ph.D in Roman History (with a specialty in the women of the Imperial Family) is the academic proof, and this collection is the written proof. My only real criticism of Love and Romanpunk is that this reviewer with “untrustworthy Romanophilic tendencies” wanted even more of the Julias across this alternate, secret history. The size of the volume works against it. I think the idea and the power of the writer would allow her to sustain this idea at longer length.
Ave Atque Vale, Tansy. You’ve done very well here.