Elisabeth Storr delivers an extraordinary tale of “Peasant and patrician; concubine and master” where man seeking woman, man seeking man (mostly unrequited) and man seeking boy, erupts into a generous narrative of the quest for power between a reluctant Etruscan king, Vel Mastarna (situated in Veii—mere miles from his oppressor) and Marcus Furius Camillus—he who would be Rome’s dictator in her stunning Historical Fiction novel, Call to Juno: A Tale of Ancient Rome.
Veii has been under a 10-year siege; Rome biding its time at the unsurmountable gates, waiting to starve its conquest into submission (and thereby looting the bounty and putting Rome’s finances back into the black).
But there is danger afoot: almost entirely fuelled by relationships strong or soured. Along with the “human” battlements, the gods must also be looked after—not a few of them “serving” both sides of the battle.
At the center of it all is Artile Mastarna an Etruscan soothsayer who would rather corrupt boys than provide life-advancing advice. His brother, Vel (albeit reluctantly) is readily betrayed by his all-knowing sibling who prefers to work with the Romans and topple his own countrymen. A further link to Rome comes in the beguiling and astute shape of Caecilia. Years ago, her Roman relatives used her as the glue for peace in a forced marriage between the warring countries. Their eldest, adopted son, Tarchon, also prefers the company of men and makes no bones about showing his inclination. Four other children have blessed this political union which, nonetheless, has become a truly loving relationship.
In Rome, the action centers around the highly ambitious Marcus Furius Camillus, unashamed patrician and consular general. His love interest is a former prostitute (kept a secret from her lover, but others within the circle are aware), who faithfully serves her master in the role of concubine. The gay blade on this side of the divide is Marcus Aemilius Mamercus, whose unrequited love for Appius Claudius Drusus is further complicated Drusus’ infatuation with Caecilia—all the better to kill the Etruscan king!
Watching, of course, are the gods. How curious that both sides worship the same deities, albeit with different names (e.g., Uni/Juno, Tina/Jupiter, Aplu/Apollo, Fufluns/Dionysus). When simultaneously beseeched for assistance from the disparate factions, what’s a god to do? Beware the thunderbolt!
As with all good historical fiction, Storrs takes us on a long-ago journey that has much relevance for the present day, proving once again the old adage that there is nothing new under the sun (and in this case, son). Savor the past, then fill in your own cast of 21st-century characters and see them through the lens of time.
Call to Juno won 1st Place in the 2017 Chaucer Awards for Early Historical Fiction.