In the midst of the Second Marcomannic War (178-180 AD), Lucius Satrius’ hopes of being promoted from optio to centurion—and thereby securing his Roman citizenship—are dashed when a native son of Rome is thrust into the command of the Septem Gallorum cohort of soldiers.
Lucius is undeniably attracted to the new centurion, Caius Florius Corvus—until the two meet. Florius has the most unbearable manners. Not only his he something of a slob, he questions Lucius’ loyalties. This leaves Lucius with no choice but to double down on his role as optio and stalwartly back up the oft overbearing demands the new centurion places on their cohort. While he may now be seen as being just as hard-nosed as the centurion, or even worse as the centurion’s pet, Lucius manages to prevent his own cohort from rejecting the new centurion so everyone can concentrate on battling the ever encroaching barbarians.
When rumors surface that Florius is “taking liberties” with his optio, he is enraged. For sure, he finds Lucius a capable soldier and pleasing to look at. But Florius is a Roman; although relations with males are not strictly taboo, the power dynamics are rigidly structured. What’s more, it’s an abuse of power for a centurion to take advantage of his second in command in such a manner. Such a relationship would only bring dishonor to them both.
Yet sparks fly when Florius confronts Lucius over the rumors in a vignette that absolutely must be a one-time-only affair. As the war deepens and the two men learn to work with each other, however, it becomes harder and harder to ignore the feelings they have for one another. Things come to a head when a battle gone wrong almost gets one of them killed…but will it be enough for the two of them to forge a real relationship, or will the call of duty keep them forever apart?
Okay! So this is a crappy summary, in part because this book is crammed full of period-specific language and concepts and stuff. But please, do not let that stop you from reading this story! Disclaimer: (1) I initially thought this might be a fantasy type book, what with all the recent-ish movies that combine history and mythology and I was wary about that; it turns out, however, this is straight up historical fiction. (2) I am particularly enamored of this story because it so closely resembles a Gundam Wing fanfic I read years and years ago by an author I totally respected (read: envied her ability to turn research into compelling story). Nothing is more fun than nostalgia, eh?
The blend of historical facts, places, events (and, indeed, even the friggen vocabulary) with the fictional characters and their story is amazing. At it’s core, this is a get-together story about two soldiers. These soldiers are as different as night and day, but I really appreciated that Schwab didn’t beat the reader over the head to point out these differences. But for the sake of descriptions, we definitely see how Lucius is a dedicated soldier who enjoys an excellent rapport with the members of his cohort (the term generally used to refer to a group of soldiers, apparently. This book educates you, too!). Likewise, we observe how almost bull-headed Caius is, expecting his orders to be followed to the T and a stickler for the rules, even at the expense of his own desires. Plus, the physical differences that peek out without being melodramatic: Caius is built like a brick shithouse and utterly unselfconscious; Lucius is more lithe and fair.
There is a lot of exposition on life in the army and, given the post script blurb at the end of the book, this is something Schwab put a lot of effort into researching. What I totally admired here is how all the research about the lives of the average Roman soldier are used to build a framework with liberties and constraints around which we see our two MCs build their romance. Just to reiterate, I would state this book truly is a love story despite the setting. Indeed, it feels a lot like the big opportunities for epic action sequences (read: bloody descriptions of the horrors of war) are largely left off page. Be that as it may, I never got the impression the book was lacking for action—mostly because so much of the reader’s attention is focused on the action that unfolds between Lucius and Caius.
Of course, there is a lot of mistrust between these two at first, which nicely frames these two soldiers as sort of enemies (obviously fighting for the same team, but shown to be personally at odds with one another). I especially liked how they slowly develop a functional professional relationship that goes so far as to be friendship, even as we see Lucius having to tamp down on his attraction (everyone can sympathize with how much it sucks to lust after someone you know you’d never catch, right?). I liked how we got to see Lucius angst over a tryst he has with Caius because, afterwards, Caius bluntly says nothing can ever develop between them. I especially liked it when these two finally got to set the record straight and establish what they wanted from each other. AND I loved that their decision to actually be together wasn’t the end of the story, rather we get another thirty or so pages (about 20% of the book) to indulge in their relationship (plus that sex scene! Bookmarked and underlined!)
There’s a backdrop of war/military action, but it definitely is just that, a backdrop, so please be aware if you’re expecting a lot of political maneuvering ala Captive Prince by C. S. Pacat, you might be disappointed. If, however, you are looking for a thoughtfully written period romance that doesn’t skimp on the details, while still not totally overwhelming you with a barrage of facts to remember and driven by interesting characters you can’t help but root for, I think you’ll really enjoy this book.