The Golden Dice, the latest novel in Elisabeth Storrs' Tales of Ancient Rome series, takes readers back to the 4th century BC, to a time when ancient Etruria was the most powerful civilization on the Italian peninsula. Yet, at the same time, Rome continued to gain strength and started to challenge for supremacy.
Opening seven years after the events of the The Wedding Shroud (the first novel in the series) concluded, The Golden Dice features the return of several familiar characters. The most significant of whom is Caecilia, a Roman woman who, in the first novel, was forced to marry a powerful Etruscan Lord, Vel Mastarna, to secure a peace treaty between Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii. At the outset of The Golden Dice the reader learns that Caecilia and Vel are now happily settled into married life and have started a family. Their happiness, however, is marred by the bitter war now taking place between Veii and Rome, a war that sees Veii under siege year after year. While Caecilia knows that Veii must emerge victorious to ensure her family's survival, she doesn't want victory to come at the price of the destruction of Rome. Storrs does a masterful job of illustrating Caecilia's inner turmoil. While Caecilia is the central character of this novel, The Golden Dice also features two other remarkable women: Semni, a potter turned servant within Caecilia's household, and Pinna, a Roman tomb prostitute (known as a night moth) who seeks to better her situation in life. While the reader may not always agree with the actions and decisions taken by either Semni or Pinna, Storrs has developed both characters in such a way as to leave readers rooting for them.
A great cast of characters is only one of the many strengths of The Golden Dice. Storrs' prose is eloquent and her attention to detail leaves the reader with a very strong sense of time and place. The plot, which alternates between the stories of Caecilia, Semni and Pinna, is always engaging and never drags. In fact, I found this novel a difficult one to put down and I was sorry to see it end. The novel's setting, however, has to be my favourite aspect of the book. While much historical fiction has been written of ancient Rome, few novels within the genre have featured ancient Etruria so prominently. As a reader interested in exploring some of history's less well-known civilizations, I appreciate that Storrs has chosen to focus her novels in Etruria. As was the case in The Wedding Shroud, Storrs deftly showcases the often striking differences between Etruscan and Roman customs and beliefs, whether they pertain to religion, the treatment of women, or to politics. Even though Veii and Rome were only twelve miles apart in distance, they might as well have been on other sides of the world given how very different they were.
Storrs does a good job of incorporating the key events from The Wedding Shroud into The Golden Dice and, as a result, this latest novel can be read independently of the first. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend starting with the first book as I think it will enrich the reading experience of this one (my review of The Wedding Shroud can be found here).
The Golden Dice is an excellent novel, one that I highly recommended to all fans of historical fiction, especially those who enjoy reading novels set in the ancient world.
Note: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.