As is usual with second volumes in a series, this one did not quite match up to Kate Quinn’s first, her MISTRESS OF ROME. What drove the first novel was the high-stakes rivalry between spiteful heiress Lepida Pollia and her slave Thea. Lepida Pollia had the power to ruin Thea and tried to destroy her. So it was fascinating to see how Thea escaped her destiny as a dockside whore to become an emperor’s consort.
There is no such high-stakes situation in DAUGHTERS OF ROME. Somehow, despite the upheavals and bloodshed attendant on having 4 emperors of Rome in one year (69 CE), I never felt that the quartet of women we come to know were in real danger. Yes, they are nearly killed on more than one occasion, but there was no deadly rivalry between them, no sense that one of them could be completely ruined.
Cornelia Prima, the eldest, loses her husband early on in the coup against Galba, and spends a great deal of the novel being heartbroken about it. But she shucks off her proper veneer to find a lover, second husband, and happiness in her bodyguard.
Cornelia Tertia, known as Lollia, goes through four husbands in the course of this novel, a clever way of illustrating what the cost of these sudden political changes were on wealthy Roman families, who were always obliged to cultivate the winning side in any political upheaval, so that they could keep their businesses and possessions intact. However, Lollia founds her own happiness with a slave from the north named Thrax.
Cornelia Quarta, known as Diana, was my favorite character, a tomboy of a girl who has no interest in men despite her great beauty, preferring to drive chariots instead. As other readers have mentioned, that description of the race she won in the Circus Maximus in Chapter 17 was a masterpiece of powerful writing.
Then there is Cornelia Secunda, known as Marcella (and subsequently Domitia) who is hustled into a marriage by Emperor Vespasian’s younger son Domitian near the end of the novel, as a means of stifling her successful meddling in Roman politics, which caused the rise and fall of four emperors in one year. The way her political life came to an end was completely chilling, but there was little sense of this ending before it happened, and so there was no spine of tension to drive this novel forward. Four stars.