Reading Sophia McDougall’s Savage City

Savage Cityby Sophia McDougall
(Gollancz, 2011)

It would be wrong to say that the alternative world setting is incidental to Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas trilogy but neither is the working out of such a history the driving force behind the series, not when the point of divergence occurs so far in the past. Yet, neither should the series be regarded simply as a story set against a faux-imperial backdrop for local colour. Instead, McDougall has created a world in which various powerful and emotive issues can be interrogated away from contemporary assumptions and received wisdoms. Once this is grasped, McDougall’s choice of an alternative Imperial Rome as a venue in which to explore personal freedoms and political expediency is more easily understood.

Savage City, like its predecessors, focuses on Una and Sulien, slaves who escaped to Europe and were later freed, thanks to their involvement with Marcus Novius, heir to the Imperial Throne, who had fled from Rome after his parents’ murders, fearing his life was in danger. In Rome Burning, Una had come to realise that Marcus’s cousin, Drusus, was behind the murders, so determined was he to fulfil a prophecy that he would become emperor. As Savage City opens, with the deaths of Marcus and other members of the Imperial family in a bomb blast, Drusus once again finds himself thwarted but usurps the throne anyway and attempts to execute Una and various others because they know what he has done.

A power struggle between unevenly matched forces is a fictional staple; one expects those on the side of ‘good’ to triumph somehow, no matter how unevenly matched the two groups might be. What makes Savage City and its predecessors stand out from the crowd is the focus not on the mechanics of the struggle as on the emotional price it exacts from everyone, on all sides of the conflict. Everyone has a particular view of how various issues ought to be handled and no two seem to agree.

All her life Una has dreamed of the abolition of slavery and, having escaped, is determined to do what she can to make it happen; her relationship with Marcus offers a chance to finally achieve this yet Marcus has been made acutely aware that political solutions are not easily enacted, even by emperors – the economic costs of turning slaves into paid servants is made plain. By the same token, his relationship with Una, even as a freedwoman, cannot be sanctioned by the state; she can be his concubine or his advisor but not his wife.

When the state cannot help, Una turns to grassroots activism, utilising people’s strengths and their willingness to perform various actions according to their own convictions. This willingness to accommodate can be linked to Marcus’s attempts to avert war. Drusus, by contrast, believes in absolute authority and with it the right to dispose of people as he sees fit. War is necessary in order to establish his own supremacy; it does not occur to him to question his own right to order to people to die on his behalf.

In addressing such issues Savage City and its predecessors attest to the fact that it is possible – maybe even necessary – to do something with speculative fiction that goes beyond the familiar tropes. While the fantastic elements of the narrative are low-key – Sulien’s ability to heal, Una’s ability to direct people’s thoughts – and the alternative history doesn’t always entirely convince, the passion behind the narrative is highly persuasive.

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