(self-published/SilverWood Books 2013)
The premise for this book, the first in a series set in Roma Nova, is that Rome never really died out, but colonisers left the city during the downfall of the Roman Empire to found a new colony (somewhere around Slovenia) which has existed to the present day. Since the men of Roma Nova’s twelve founding families were always off fighting for the colony’s existence, the government was taken over by women, and as a result Roma Nova is a matriarchy. Quite apart from this, the world and its history has developed quite differently from ours: in America, for instance, where our protagonist, Karen Brown, grew up and lives, the Dutch retained a much greater influence on New York, in particular, than in our world. When Karen inadvertently seriously annoys one of the founding families when volunteering in Kew Park, she is put onto a watch-list by the security services, fired from her volunteering job, and it even makes trouble for her at work (for an advertising agency). Her mother was from Roma Nova, and her father naturalised American, but both died when she was young, and she spent the rest of her childhood on the Nebraskan farm of her father’s relatives.
Very soon, she’s pitching for a job for a Roma Novan client, Sextilius Gavro, and meets Gavro’s very attractive interpreter, Conradus Tellus. Not long afterwards, however, Karen’s world falls apart, particularly in realising that the security services are concerned that this new association with a foreign power will lead to loss of influence over Brown Electronics, Karen’s father’s company, which she had not previously realised would come under her control at the age of twenty-five. Fearing for her life, she takes sanctuary in the Roma Novan embassy, and once there finds that she’s heir to the Mitela family’s wealth and influence, a position of high status. Under attack from a covert security services fixer, Jeffrey Renschman (though it’s only later that his personal animus against Karen becomes apparent), she heads off to Roma Nova, and connects with her grandmother, head of the Mitela clan, and other family, reverting to the name given her by her mother, Carina.
A few months later, after settling into life in her new homeland, shopping, investing her now considerable wealth, she proposes a scheme to combat drug smuggling, and gets enlisted into the police force for an undercover mission.
Given the premise, Morton does nicely giving the details of her alternative universe, particularly changes in global politics and technology, and sets up Karen’s departure from the Eastern United States with real incentive. By making her a patrician who also has no sense of her real status in Roma Nova also makes her more relatable as well as the reader’s guide to this new world, as well as giving her access to high ranked politicos such as the Imperatrix, which wouldn’t have been the case if her mother had just been an ordinary citizen.
Karen/Carina works nicely as an undercover operative, but Roma Nova, in retrospect, does seem a bit restrictive – though maybe that’s understandable given its history – even if crime does occur and career criminals do exist.
I enjoyed this as an entertaining alternative universe thriller, but there are a couple of reservations I have. The first is that I never entirely believed in Carina and Conrad’s relationship: it’s all a bit insta-love, and although things don’t go smoothly for them, there’s nothing in the way he’s portrayed, apart from his fierce desire to protect her from harm, which seems remotely attractive. He’s easily angered, doesn’t trust her to make her own decisions – doesn’t actually seem to trust her at all, properly – and there’s way too much angst in their relationship for me to enjoy it. I actually much preferred Carina’s relationship with her handler at the Department of Justice, Cornelius Lurio, who does trust her, praises her good job, and who actually makes her laugh (though their sexual relationship is described in a way which makes her seem worryingly passive, since she admits she doesn’t “love him, or really lust after him”).
The second is that I think Morton tries to pack in a bit too much plot, such that the time frame seems a little hasty, and characterization is limited. I’d like to have seen a bit more bonding with Carina and her grandmother, for example, and an acknowledgement that her friends back in America were still in contact with her even after her move to Roma Nova – or, if this wasn’t possible, an explanation of why. The crime thriller plot in the main part of the book works quite well, even if Renschman’s part in the last part of the book seems a little unnecessary.
Anyway, I enjoyed this enough to read the sequel, Perfiditas (review to come later). Inceptio, by the way, is Latin for a beginning, or an enterprise, which nicely sums up both the plot of this book and its starting point as the first in a series.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.