The Water Thief sort of made me think of a combination of National Treasure and Da Vinci Code, but set in ancient Rome around 100 AD and not annoying. Aelius, our awesome narrator, is a soldier with a penchant for writing, research, and history. The emperor commissions him to write a history of the deified Hadrian, and, almost as an afterthought, suggests Aelius get the definitives on the death of Hadrian’s favorite, Antoninous the Water Boy. Hadrian, who reigned about a hundred fifty years earlier, so loved Antoninus that Hadrian built the dead boy a city, a temple, and appeared to have mourned his drowning for the rest of Hadrian’s life. But did Antoninus drown? Or was he murdered? If so, why?
What unfolds is both a mystery and a meditation on grieving. Aelius’ journey takes him to Egypt, Italy, and back again. What makes this utterly cool is that this is an ancient Rome filled with people of color, mixed race Romans, and a lot of reflection on Rome’s work as a colonizer. Plus, the only way Aelius can solve the mystery is by taking seriously Hadrian’s bisexuality, and the relationship the emperor had with Antoninus. much like the only way Aelius can work out his feelings towards Egypt and conquest is by taking seriously the relationship he had with Anubina, the Egyptian girl he bought from a brothel.
What I liked:
1. I liked that through Aelius the reader gets to see the multiple views of homosexuality in Rome. While it’s safe-ish to be out, it’s not like people (particularly soldiers or police officers) are down with the idea of same sex lovin’. Plus, Hadrian’s previous biographers censored his life so that his love for Antoninus seemed like either a fling or a mis-step, and so that the emperor himself seemed like a libertine.
2. I liked the casual acknowledgment of race and class. Anubina, Aelius’ old flame, is Egyptian and Roman. She’s the daughter of a whore who was had by a Roman soldier, and was sold by her mother to a brothel, where she was sold again to Aelius for the seasons he was in Rome. She refused to marry him, and the mingled affection and resentment she has towards him defines their relationship. Several other characters are Egyptian, Jewish, or some other kind of not-whitebread, which is refreshing, since a lot of historical fiction forgets that Rome was a multinational, multiethnic empire (I’m looking at you, King of Ys!).
3. I liked the casual acknowledgment of globalization and resistance to free market ideologies. That as a component of Rome’s colonizing agenda was kinda hot.
4. The prose is often quite tight — quirky enough so you get the sense that this is someone thinking in Latin, but not difficult to lose yourself in. Also, the following passage wrung my heart.
A room is a room, like a man is a man, but soldiers and Caesars and homosexuals and murderers and whores, all were seen exclusively for what they did, or appeared to do. It was a historian’s job to make sure of that — minding the deeds. ( 342)
I think that stuck with me because it’s rare you see historical fiction reflect critically on the role of the historian in defining and pinning down the character of these great personages. The categories Aelius is thinking of populate this series, and are erased from mainstream histories.
There was one thing I didn’t like… While the female characters were quirky and nicely drawn (Anubina being my favorite!) the stage was mostly dominated by male speakers. I get that that fits with the research Aelius was doing — the whores he interviews are ways of getting at the history of a Great Man. But, at the same time, I found myself much more interested in their lives than in Hadrian’s. At least they weren’t consumed by a desire to please and appease the men in their lives. They felt like agents even if they were only on screen for two seconds.
I’ve already requested the next book in the series, and can’t wait to review it.