Lindsey Davis’ Master and God is a vastly entertaining historical novel set in the reign of the Emperor Domitian in first-century Rome. It is on the one hand a love story between Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a valiant but reluctant member of the Praetorian Guard, whose military career is as successful as his marital history is disastrous, and Flavia Lucilla, daughter of a freed slave and hairdresser to the ladies of the imperial household. A devastating fire in Rome brings them together as apartment-mates whose relationship survives separation and the apparent death of Gaius, evolving into a bond of real passion and understanding.
It is also the story of the seizure of power by the Emperor Domitian, his increasing paranoia and madness as he styles himself Master and God. As Domitian’s cruelties to his enemies and those he only thinks are enemies grows, the future of Rome demands desperate measures, measures that demand Gaius choose between his sworn duty to protect the Emperor becoming part of the forces arrayed against him.
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Davis' concept of a wise-cracking, Raymond Chandleresque equivalent in ancient Rome, Didius Falco, was, at the time he first appeared, a new approach to the mystery novel and much praised. But Davis herself has never been an outstanding author, and there are now better authors in the genre [such as Ruth Downie]. Indeed, her later Falco novels weren't particularly good. But this novel is definitely more mediocre than her previous efforts. It is rather a "Everyday Life in Imperial Rome" with large dollops of history, social and political, and an awkward love story inserted at intervals.
Falco succeeded in large part by being in the first person; this book is in the third, and that makes the narrative sections somewhat slow going, not helped by Robin Sachs' attempt at being laconic -- which comes across as monotonous and soporific.
In short, this is overwritten, and not particularly interesting, and read rather than performed. I'd recommend Downie's "Medicus" series instead.
- S. Lev-Ami