Forget everything you know about the Roman Empire under the reign of Nero ... that didnt take long, did it?
Now pick up a copy of Suzanne Tyrpaks debut novel Vestal Virgin. Youll learn more about what it was like to live during that seminal time in Western Civilization than you ever couldve in school, and youll get a great story to boot.
The Durango resident traveled to Rome twice to research the book, which tells the story of Elissa Rubria Honoria, a priestess of the sacred flame sworn to chastity for 30 years. Never beholden to social convention Nero murdered his own mother to gain the throne, after all the emperor ignores the sacrosanctity of the Vestal Virgins and pursues Elissa with all the charm and panache of Ted Kennedy on a bender.
For history buffs, Vestal Virgin is like candy. Ive personally never read anything that makes the Roman Empire so relatable, and HBOs Rome doesnt count you dont read TV. Tyrpaks novel blends real historical figures with her own character creations seamlessly to the point where I often found myself referring to the appendix to decipher who was real and who wasnt.
The story begins with Elissa begging Nero to spare the life of her brother, a childhood friend of Neros who is condemned to death in the Coliseum for treason. Of course, he was guilty of no such thing, and its the first instance where Tyrpak illustrates the paranoia thats come to be associated with Nero the man. His was a throne won through murder and deceit, and he never felt at ease. He was also the offspring of incestuous relationships and was probably a bit touched in the head.
As much as anything, he was also a depraved pervert, and Tyrpak doesnt shy away from that, either. Theres lots of sex, of the hetero and homo varieties. But she handles it well; its not pornography, its historical fiction, and there was nothing fictional about Neros appetites no one can write a story about the emperor and ignore it. Not satisfied with spurning the gods through his pursuit of Elissa, Nero has his way with her brother, sister (who is all too willing to be selected as one of his favorites at the age of 14) and anyone else who gets within arms reach.
Tyrpak continues to blend history with drama by adding Paul of Tarsus the Bibles Paul, St. Paul to the mix. Its a great reminder of what a miracle the very rise of Christianity was in ancient Rome.
The story is set just 30 years after the death of Jesus Christ and early Christians were either thought to be crazy, dangerous or both. Discussions between Paul and his fellow founding fathers of the religion, Luke and Timothy, and their attempts to convince Elissa of the presence of one God instead of many, is a particularly insightful sub-plot on the authors part.
If I have to find a fault, its that Tyrpaks use of period terminology is almost too thorough. She probably couldve included a glossary to help readers with terms like sica, stola, palla and lictor. Theyre simple enough to contextualize, but it created a bit of stumbling in the early going, for me, anyway.
Even though this is her first novel, Tyrpak is clearly no rookie as a writer. The book is a page-turner. Vestal Virgin is not a suspense novel in the traditional sense, but there are a couple of twists at the end that cant be spoiled here without ruining the entire story. And so I wont. But theyre great twists; suffice to say the story really comes down to Elissa unknowingly fulfilling an ancient prophecy.
Im already awaiting Tyrpaks next effort, another period novel titled Agathons Daughter, which will be set in ancient Greece.