Monday, 19 December 2016

Review: The Centurion's Choice by Sandra Schwab

4.5 stars

I can't remember where I stumbled across The Centurion's Choice, but since it only came out at the beginning of this month, I guess it must have been on a new release list somewhere. Anyway, I'm grateful I saw it, and decided to take a chance on it, because it was delightful. It has great characters, with a tender romance between the heroes, and the setting is amazingly rich in historical detail.

Although Lucius Satrius had hopes of being promoted to centurion, when Caius Florius Corvus is brought in instead, Lucius swears his loyalty to him as the unit's optio. But Florius - or 'Cranky Centurion Florius' as the centuria call him - is wary of his second-in-command. But, as their campaign in Germania drags on, they find themselves growing closer, and questioning whether their different ranks really mean they can't be together. 

It occurred to me after I bought The Centurion's Choice but before I read it that it might be annoyed if it anachronistically adhered to modern ideas of heterosexuality and homosexuality over Roman constructs of penetrator/active partner vs. person being penetrated/passive partner. But I shouldn't have worried. Not only has Schwab done her research, the question of Roman sexual norms and prejudices make up much of the romantic conflict between the heroes:
Romans didn’t fuck other freeborn men, though a man from one of the provinces and without Roman citizenship might be just about acceptable—as long as he let the Roman do the fucking, of course. But alas, Centurion Florius was Lucius’ superior officer, and if Lucius had gotten the man’s true measure, he’d say Florius would never do anything that might be construed as taking advantage of, and dishonoring, a man serving under him. (32%)
Most of the book is from Lucius' perspective, which worked well, because it saved Florius' point of view for pivotal moments that contained powerful emotion. For the most part, I thought the men's transition from wary colleagues to friends to lovers was excellent. I would have liked to have seen one or two more interactions with them as friendly colleagues or affectionate lovers, just to have a bit more of a basis to imagine the rest of their life together, but it is a novella, and Lucius' and Florius' romance was very well developed and satisfying even without these extra moments. 

Lucius' and Florius' lives in the giant Roman military machine is very interesting, and this really shapes the story, as well as providing a strong sense of place and time. However, even more than the military stuff, I loved the way that Schwab conveyed the breadth and diversity of the Roman Empire. Lucius and Florius serve in an auxiliary unit mostly made up of Gauls, while Florius - although a Roman citizen - has been raised in Caledonia (aka Scotland) and Lucius is from province of Syria (although his hometown is now located in modern-day Turkey). 

At the beginning of the book, Schwab provides a brief Author's Note to orientate the modern reader to the present-day names of the places mentioned in the book (for example, Vindobona is Vienna; Danuvius is the Danube). There is also another, more extensive, Author's Note at the end that provides more information about the military aspects, as well as Roman male-male sexual and romantic relationships. It's all fascinating, and the provides just the right amount of context to the novella itself.  

The Centurion's Choice was such an excellent read - especially for a novella - and I'm excited to see what Schwab has done with the full length novels in the series, Eagle's Honor: Banished and Eagle's Honor: Ravished.

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