[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 24 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]
Let us begin with the issue of most interest to future historians: I did not poison my uncle and husband, the Emperor Claudius. Instead, I drove a stake through his heart.
That’s the first paragraph of Love and Romanpunk, by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Before we dive in, let’s get the full disclosure out of the way. Tansy is one of my cohosts on our Doctor Who podcast Verity!, and I do consider her a friend (despite never having met her in the non-internet world). Australia is Very Far Away.
Australia is also where part of this book is set, but not the first part. Love and Romanpunk is made up of four connected short stories that take place in four distinct places and times, but they have a strong thread of Romans and monsters (and Roman monsters) running through them to connect the events throughout history. Speaking of history, Tansy has a PhD in Roman history, so when it comes to ancient Rome, she knows her stuff. I love twisted history, and I love it most when it’s written by someone who knows it and loves it inside and out.
The first story is the most Roman of the bunch. It starts with a bestiary: “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary”, a glossary of monsters that is one of the most clever parts of a very clever book. It educates the reader about the types of monsters one might encounter later, and it simultaneously tells its own story, which is deftly woven into the alphabetical entries. I was skeptical at first because that kind of structured storytelling doesn’t always land for me, but by the end of it I wanted to stand up and applaud.
The rest of this first story is a first-person account of the secret history of the Caesars, written by Julia Agrippina, badass sister of Caligula, mother of Nero, and neice-wife of Claudius. It has a particular focus on the Julias of the family. It’s something special to be a Julia, you see. The introductory glossary makes it pretty clear that *this* Rome is populated by both humans and monsters (and some who are a bit of both). This section tells you who were the monsters and what kinds of monsters they were.
Then we cut to hundreds of years later for the next story, “Lamia Victoriana”, which is told from the POV of Mary Shelly’s sister, Fanny, who is beguiled by the sister of the poet Mary is in love with. Read carefully—it may not be the poet you expect. The poet and his sister are certainly not *what* you expect. Or at least not what Fanny expects. I’ll say this, the way Fanny handles the situation is not what *I* expected!
The result of her handling things leads to the next story, “The Patrician”, which takes place in the aforementioned Australia, in what seems to be just beyond present day. Someone has built a Roman “theme city”, Nova Ostia, complete with actual stones shipped from Rome. That may sound pretty neat and authentic, but apparently authentic Roman stones are basically monster magnets, as Clea Majora discovers. She lives and works in Nova Ostia and serves as our POV character for this section. I’d love to tell you about the person she meets, but I, as a reader, am not terribly quick on the uptake so it took me by delightful surprise. I’d hate to spoil that for anyone who reads this book (and I hope you do!).
The final story, “Last of the Romanpunks”, takes place in an airship, so I pretty much *had* to review this book on The Incomparable Network. It’s a “Romanpunk” airship that’s a travelling Roman-themed bar, complete with togas and spiced, watered wine. This time we see events from the POV of Clea’s grandson Sebastian, who is all grown up and knows his grandmother’s history as a monster-hunter. He thinks that stuff is all in the past. OR IS IT? Yeah. Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s NOT.
My favourite thing about Tansy’s writing is that it is whip-smart and crackingly clever while also being dangerously easy to read. Her stuff is not so much “I don’t want to put it down” as it is “Where the hell did the time go?”
And because this subject is so firmly in her wheelhouse, these stories feel confident and fun, and I really enjoyed the ride. I’ll close with something Tansy says in the Afterword: “I believe that if everyone who ever wrote an academic thesis followed it up with a tasty piece of fiction that is the literary equivalent of spraying offensive graffiti tags all over their area of expertise, the world would be a better place.”