Elemental Rome: From Unseen Fire by Cass Morris

Lately, it’s really difficult to be enthusiastic about books. Perhaps I’ve read too many of them. Perhaps—though less likely—I haven’t read enough, and if I read a few more, the enthusiasm will come back. But it’s particularly difficult to be enthusiastic about books that aren’t self-contained: a novel that begins a series without paying off any of the narrative threads that it sets up in the same volume is really difficult to love.

The odd thing is that From Unseen Fire should be right up my tree. My background is ancient history, and From Unseen Fire sets itself in an alternate version of Rome—a Rome by a different name, and one where certain individuals have magical talents related to elements, but a Roman Republic nonetheless.

This alternate Rome, or “Aven,” closely parallels the political and social situation in the historical Rome in the aftermath of the Sullan dictatorship and prior to the political and military rise of Julius Caesar, though From Unseen Fire compresses the time between Sulla’s retirement and demise and Caesar’s rise. (And Ocella, the Sulla-figure, dies rather than retiring to a country estate and dying quietly there.)

In Aven, male mages are allowed to be members of the senate but not to hold any of the offices on the cursus honorum. A mage who runs for any of the offices is subject to penalty of death. And, like the original Rome, women are subject the control of their fathers and their husbands, legally and socially. Female mages have the public outlet of the priesthood, but otherwise, their talents are relegated to the domestic sphere.

Latona is a powerful mage, the daughter of a prominent senatorial family. Under Ocella’s dictatorship, her father married her to a senatorial nonentity, a man with mercantile interests and no political ambition. Her sister’s husband was murdered on the dictator’s orders, and Latona drew the dictator’s attention and was forced take actions distasteful to her in order to survive. In the wake of the dictator’s death, her family moves to re-establish its political precedence, and From Unseen Fire focuses on her family: Latona, with her talents in Spirit and Fire magic; her elder sister Aula with her gifts as a society hostess; her younger sister Alhena, whose talents lie in time magic, though her visions are unpredictable; and their brother Gaius, a military tribune whose service with the legions takes him into the interior of Iberia—an alternate Iberian peninsula whose tribes have begun taking actions that set them on a course for war with Aven.

From Unseen Fire also sees among its viewpoint characters Sempronius Tarren, a mage who has hidden his gifts in order to stand for the offices of the cursus honorum, and whose political career and ambitions looks at this early stage to be modelled on some combination of C. Julius Caesar and Gn. Pompeius Magnus; Lucretius Rabirus, who served under the dictator and who seeks to restore the mos maiorum (in Latin, literally the custom of the elders, the ancestral practices and customary uses of the Roman Republic) of Aven to his ideal of what that should be; Ekialde, a leader among the Iberian tribespeople and his wife; and Latona’s slave-handmaid, Mertula.

These characters engage in political intrigue, magic, and war. In emotional terms, From Unseen Fire focuses on whether Latona will allow herself to claim ambition for herself—to move into spheres that custom and habit would deny her—and whether or not she’ll allow herself to act on her attraction to Sempronius Tarren. Meanwhile, Tarren is aiming at election to the praetorship, with an eye to having control of the legions in Iberia and advancing his ambitions for the future of Aven, but his enemies have no hesitation at stooping to dirty tricks to try to bar his way.

While From Unseen Fire presents us with some interesting and compelling characters, Morris’s view of Aven’s slavery and imperial ambitions is a little more rosy-eyed, or at least a little less focused on the inherent cruelty of the systems that create and support an imperial state with a sizable slave class, than I really find comfortable. Her unsympathetic characters share more than a touch of xenophobia, while even her sympathetic ones view Aven’s incorporation of its immigrants (drawn from subject populations) in terms reminiscent of American myth-making about its “melting pot” drawing the best from elsewhere and incorporating them into itself. (And the only slaves we see up close are in relatively comfortable situations with “good” owners.)

Morris leans hard into recreating Rome-but-with-magic: the worldbuilding is detailed, the correspondences the next best thing to exact. (Aven’s conservative political faction are even known as the optimates.) While this detailed attention to the world is diverting, the novel’s events take some time to gather momentum, and their scattered focus—geographically, and in terms of the number of characters involved—means that the beginning is rather slow. Things are only starting to get really interesting when the novel comes to a close. I expect a sequel’s on the way, but it is somewhat frustrating.

That said, I expect I’ll be looking for Morris’s next work.

From Unseen Fire is available from DAW.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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