Monday 21 March 2022

Beneath the Waves by Melissa Addey


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Fictional Drama
80/81 AD

Emperor Titus wants a Naumachia, a water event including a mock sea battle and other features. After the first event, he is so pleased that he wants another the following year, on a grander scale, this one with deeper water and deadly aquatic creatures: eels, vipers, sharks and crocodiles. An ensemble of workers have to figure out how to waterproof the floor of the Amphitheatre; how to get water to the Amphitheatre and onto the floor of the arena, then how to drain it quickly. They also have to get ships (2/3 the size of a regular ship) into the water; get sea creatures from Ostia, and house them safely until showtime. And, really, there is no point in having man-eating creatures in the water unless there is something to eat. 
Fighting gladiators falling from the ships satisfy this need, but the author skims very lightly over this part.

Marcus, the manager of games and his assistant, Althea, face these Herculean tasks after having put on one hundred days of consecutive games, along with others recruited occasionally for their expertise. As well as working closely together, Althea and Marcus live in the same insula (apartment block) which has a popina (eating place) on a corner run by Cassia and her father. Various other occupants of the insula include a retired Vestal Virgin and a lively, energetic orphaned black boy who’s a sort of mascot.

One night, Althea barely escapes being raped. The next day, she realises her attacker is a cousin of Cassia’s come for a visit. She faces a moral dilemma. Should she tell Cassia or just hope the cousin will go home? Delay only makes things worse because it is soon apparent that the cousin has his eye on the popina through marriage to Cassia. Althea tells no one and lives in fear. She copes with her secret and the burdens of her job with the support of friends. This is only one of several sub-plots.

Three things I particularly liked about this book: the narrative takes a simple, unadorned style, in keeping with the characters; likewise the dialogue is simple, even when explaining technically complicated things relating to the Naumachia, and skips along naturally without ever seeming forced. The third is the supportive and loving community of the insula, which add a few heart-warming moments to the drama.

Anyone who reads this book would be forgiven for wondering how the author found information on something as arcane as Naumachia, which apparently only happened twice. It is explained in the Afterword, but I can’t begin to imagine the difficulty the author must have had tracking down resources on the subject. Kudos for that.

It is the second in a series. The first deals with the destruction of Pompeii – a must read for me. Highly recommended.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Susan Appleyard
 e-version reviewed

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