Domina - Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty
Headline publishers
ISBN: 0747265686 (Amazon link)

I've been casting about for more fiction set in ancient Rome, my favourite historical period, and noticed that Paul Doherty had this standalone title about Agrippina nestled among his shelves in the bookstore - he's very prolific, so if I liked it, I had a rich back catalogue to enjoy. Of course, the other alternative is that the shelf after shelf full of titles was a warning that he just churns out mid-list material, but Domina isn't a long book, and as I've been fascinated by the early Emperors since reading Graves' classic I, Claudius I decided to give Doherty a go.

Agrippina is a fascinating character, and she's the central character in Domina, though of course as Nero is infamous for something else aside from letting Rome burn, to tell the full lurid tale the narrator must be someone else than Agrippina herself, in this case her servant Parmenon.

Parmenon has been with Agrippina since her teens, meeting her as an agent of Sejanus - a powerful eminence gris under Emperor Tiberius, and a fascinating character in his own right. Parmemon quickly turns his coat and sides with the charismatic Agrippina, daughter of the revered Germanicus. This turns out to be a prudent career choice, as Agrippina's brother is Caligula, next to be Emperor, followed in turn by her uncle C-C-Claudius, who will be Agrippina's husband, with the next Emperor in turn being Nero, her son. Just in case it isn't clear, Agrippina is somewhat ambitious, though mainly by birth rather than choice according to Doherty, and utterly ruthless in her pursuit of power.

The problem with Domina is that it manages to make a absolutely riveting piece of history seem pedestrian. I'm fascinated by Agrippina, and there is a great novel waiting to be written about her, but this isn't it. I really didn't like Doherty's prose; normally I'm a big fan of what I think of as transparent prose - simple, unaffected writing which delivers the story without distracting you with wordplay. Doherty proves how difficult this can be to do, with Domina often crossing the line into dull, colourless writing. I think there might be one adjective per page, if that. The stage directions usually call for the characters to do something prosaic like 'stand', perhaps twice in the entire book does someone 'lurk' or something equally daring. This has the effect of stripping a lot of the emotional impact from much of the plot - and trust me, this isn't a story which should lack emotional impact. Dialogue is mostly the same, characters tend to info-dump at each other with more sense of talking to the reader than the fellow characters. The pacing felt off too - the plot is complex, but some major events race past in half a page! For example, C-C-Claudius is off-stage until a page or two before he becomes Emperor, from plot to purple in a couple of pages, and is gone almost as quickly.

Still, Agrippina is the real star isn't she? Maybe Doherty is choosing to concentrate on her? Nope. She's a cipher, despite her long relationship with Parmemon, there's never any sense that he really gets inside her head, and as he's telling us the story, we don't really get much from her. Ditto for Parmenon himself - there's a strong sense of his loyalty to Agrippina, but again, that's about all of his inner life that we see. There's not much sense of immersion in Roman culture or daily life either, and there are a few oddities scattered around that don't read right - little details that indicate an author uncomfortable with the period. At times, Domina reads very much like a bald summary of the facts, in the manner of a history book.

Oh, wait, there's a reason for that too. Doherty has done his research for this one, but he appears to have started and stopped with Suetonius's work, which has a strong agenda, namely that of making the later Emperors look good compared to the raving lunatics that were Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Domina doesn't do anything to redress this or play with our expectations - no mention of how Claudius' reign was actually pretty good for Rome, or how even Nero had a good first five years or so. Nope, each Emperor is just the sort of raving cartoon maniac that Suetonius wanted us to picture.

I'm afraid I've pegged Doherty as strictly mid-list, one of those authors who churns out competent, readable but ultimately unexciting and unchallenging books to be read by people at train stations and airports. I'd be content with reading a couple of them on train journeys myself had he aimed lower, producing simple mysteries set in the period in the manner of Rosemary Rowe for example, but by aiming for a fictionalised account of a such a major figure as Agrippina, I think he set himself too high a target. (Luckily his other series seem to be in historical periods I just don't care for.)

Posted: Thu - October 16, 2003 at 02:34 AM