Historical fiction is something of a lost art. It requires great patience, endless hours of study, and a passion for the subject matter. Author Remmy Meggs exhibits all of these things in "Grapes of Rome: Legacy."
The story follows Dante Praetorio, the son of a wealthy senator in ancient Rome, as he rises from an innocent boy to a successful military champion and beyond. On the way, we see the events that define him and the people who influence him, which includes everyone from the highest general to the lowliest slave. Dante proves to be a fascinating character, balancing his youth and sympathy against a growing thirst for justice and vengeance. Throughout the second half of the book, the tension waxes and wanes along with Dante’s emotions, and we’re never quite sure if his gentler tendencies will be enough to stave off the psychological effects of war.
In fact, attention to the humanity of his characters is something that sets Meggs apart from others in his genre. "Grapes of Rome" is neither a tale of heroes and gods nor a soulless historical chronicle. The characters are human, with a full spectrum of thought and feeling. We see more than simply how history looks on a page; we see how it affected those who were a part of it. I enjoyed the interplay between Dante and his servants, grinning as some endeared themselves to him with boyish antics, grumbling with disappointment as others turned their own names to mud. As an adolescent, Dante and his friends are privy to the range of emotional ups and downs we’re all familiar with. Themes of love and loss appear, and from the start, we see how those in power must make difficult decisions regarding their underlings, even those they care for. Dante's relationships with the slaves around him and the various fates they meet are responsible for his deepest transformations.
I’ve seen a few reviews likening "Grapes of Rome" to "A Song of Ice and Fire," but I have to say that Meggs’s work is far more akin to Mario Puzo than George R.R. Martin. In looking back at ancient Rome as it moved from a tight monarchy into a flexible republic, it’s easy to see the seeds of what we now identify as Cosa Nostra, or Sicilian Mafia, with “dons” as wealthy landowners boasting military prowess, bending all the rules as they attempt to protect their citizens from invaders with selfish interests. Most of the families are loving and tender with their own, vengeful and merciless with their enemies. As a reader, it was this dichotomy that I found to be the most challenging element of the book; by drawing on some of the most shocking aspects of ancient society, Meggs challenges us to weigh our support for Dante against the brutal tactics he must dare in order to secure justice and victory. While the book is more about people than “good guys” and “bad guys,” Meggs doesn’t hold back on highlighting the nastiness of several antagonists. Some of the characters in opposition to the Praetorios represent the more barbaric side of war, and I admit, I wanted to see them meet gruesome ends. However, during the climax, I admit to being rather torn: vengeance can be as terrifying as it is sweet. Like Puzo, Meggs challenges us to question what we're rooting for.
I want to add that in any good historical or fantasy fiction, the land in which the story takes place should itself be a character. Meggs succeeds at this in "Grapes of Rome," presenting us with a well-researched study of early Republic-era Italy. We’re treated to a gritty and honest account of their society, their customs, and their wars against Etruscans, Sabines, and, yes, themselves. As entertaining as the battles are, windows into the habits of old Roman marketplaces and opulent villas are just as dazzling. The historical depth also influences the main plot, which centers around the political dealings of a nation making an uneasy evolution of government. I won’t give anything away, but if you’re anything like I am, you’ll spend much of the story with your eye on every soldier and slave, trying to identify which ones have ulterior motives and which ones are up to no good. Prepare to be surprised and challenged. Mysteries await. Plot twists await.
Recommended to fans of history, intrigue, and adventure!