With Caecilia, one of three heroines of Elisabeth Storrs’ gripping epic of the ancient world, political matters have always had serious personal consequences, and vice versa. Her loving marriage may be mythologized as the capstone to an adventurous star-crossed romance, but there are two sides to her situation, and her uneasy plight can't help but evoke sympathy.
“The similarity of her own story to the Greek girl's always disturbed her,” Storrs tells us in thoughtful prose. “This morning her son had been enthralled by his parents’ story also. One day, though... he might see her as a traitoress who started a never-ending war.”
Opening in 399 BC, The Golden Dice takes place seven years into the Roman siege of Veii, an event allegedly sparked by Caecilia’s decision to return to her husband, Etruscan general Vel Mastarna. Originally given to Mastarna as a “treaty bride,” an event recounted in The Wedding Shroud, she had fallen in love with him and chose him over Rome even after the truce between their rival lands broke down – a betrayal neither city can accept. In reality, though, Rome has always coveted the abundant grain-producing Veientane lands and uses her defection as an excuse to wage war.
This second volume in the series offers a much wider view of the era than the first, and is an even stronger book as a result. Storrs introduces two intriguing new heroines who share the pages with Caecilia and whose lives come to overlap closely with hers. Semni, a 15-year-old potter in the Mastarna household’s workshop, finds that her promiscuity and poor decisions get in the way of a possible romance. And Pinna, a Roman tomb whore and hired mourner, uses all the tools she has, blackmail included, to escape poverty and become an accepted member of society. Their stories, while captivating in their own right, also present Caecilia and her family from angles not previously seen.
Caecilia and Pinna may be opposites in political allegiance and social status, but the novel makes clear that during these tense, trying circumstances, both women have everything to lose. Political forces are shifting in both Rome and Veii, and the Romans’ decision to wage war in winter increases the level of danger and raises the stakes for all three women and those they love.
Veii no longer feels as much like an alien place as it did in The Wedding Shroud. Caecilia is now a Rasennan matron, to use the adjective the Etruscans use for themselves, and has established a few good friendships. As such, many of its customs have become familiar and even welcome, the freedoms offered to women especially. This stands in contrast to Rome, where, as Pinna notes, “a girl’s existence was only officially recorded on her wedding day.”
However, the horrific rituals of the Calu Death Cult of Veii, to give just one example, mean that its culture will always retain some of its foreignness. Caecilia detests those rites and still misses her cousin Marcus back in Rome, hoping he feels the same way. (He doesn't.) While she loves her husband and children, neither civilization is a truly comfortable place.
The novel interweaves scenes of domesticity with those of politics, war, religious observances, and love and brings them all to life beautifully; none of these elements overwhelms the others. There aren’t many novels of the Roman world that provide such a comprehensive picture, which should give The Golden Dice great appeal for a variety of readers.
Whether seen from the viewpoint of soldiers on the field, or by Caecilia glimpsing the bloodshed from atop the high walls of Veii, the battle action is fierce and intense. It also serves the greater purpose of developing character. Moreover, Storrs' writing is just as dramatically powerful in its quieter moments. She creates a haunting picture of a desperate young woman pondering her past and future amidst the Roman tombs at night, to name one memorable instance, as well as many heartfelt images evoking a mother's protectiveness of her child.
The Golden Dice was published in July by Cornelian Press in paperback ($14.00) and on Kindle. There's a promotion currently running until the end of Monday, November 4th, in which the Kindle version is priced at 99 cents. For more info, see the author's website at www.elisabethstorrs.com, my earlier review of The Wedding Shroud, and her previous guest posts on feminine power within Etruscan society and approaching Ursula Le Guin for an endorsement via snail mail.