Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.
As the Bard said, “love laughs at locksmiths.” I suppose that’s true even when the locksmiths are welding iron chains onto teenage war trophies. Roman/Greek Fire by Cora Kathleen is a YA romance set in the days of the Roman Republic.
Callista, Calli to her friends, has just turned eighteen, and man are her parents a drag! It’s 146 BC in the city of Corinth, and Calli is training to be a priestess like her mother, who serves Demeter. Naturally, Calli has a special gift for this sort of thing. She can see visions of the future. But all is not well. Calli doesn’t want to serve Demeter, Mom! She wants to serve Persephone, because of course she does. What teen girl doesn’t enjoy a dubiously consensual love story involving the underworld, depression, and dating a guy to spite your parents? Also, the pall of being sent to military scho- I mean, Delphi because of her gift for clairvoyance looms over her relationship with her mother. Also also, she may be too horny to be a priestess, and for once I can relate.
Nohope McFriendzone takes her to Make Out Point, where her awkward attempts to let him down easy are overheard by a pair of clandestine Roman soldiers, Camillus and Sirius. This same Sirius handsomely manages to confront her in the temple garden to flex on her about the glory of Rome. While he’s talking about boy stuff, she notices that she would probably prefer this guy over NM any day. Sirius happens to sexily be in the area because the Romans are conquering Greece and the army is preparing to lay siege to Corinth. Calli’s visions confirm the destruction of her city at the hands of the enemy waiting outside, but she treats this with the same urgency as a dream where your significant other cheats on you with a woman who is a combination of your cousin and your old boss.
I should pause here to introduce our dramatis personae properly. Calli, astute readers will remember, is a teenager who has already found her cool subculture, and the unique talent that makes her a special member of that subculture, so apparently she has completed an entire YA novel off camera. Sirius, meanwhile, is a Roman soldier meandering his way through No Man’s Land, waxing about how weary he is of army life. You see, he has been in the army for twenty years and is ready to retire and see the end of blood and war. You had to be seventeen to join the Roman army, so that makes him, at a minimum, more than twice Callista’s age. But she’s so mature for her age, not like the other girls, so it’s fine. It’s fine, right? I’m sure it’s fine.
Anyway, to the surprise of no one the Roman army continues to be attacking them and the city of Corinth is conquered, sacked, and burned to the ground. This did happen, by the way, making it the one shining moment of historical research in the story. Calli’s father, two of her brothers, and even poor lil’ Nopey are killed in front of her, and she and her mother are sold into slavery. Don’t worry, ladies, it’s visible on Sirius’ face that he does not enjoy doing any of this, so you can still totally fix him. Calli also reminds us that he is still hot. Witnessing the death of most of the people she has ever loved, Calli “cries for what seemed like an hour,” which sounds about right to me. We get some hate-flirting between Sirius, who plans to buy her for himself, and Calli, who resents captivity and the monster who killed her family, even if he does have a jaw line that could cut a ripe tomato. He insists that she behave, or he will be forced to hurt her to keep up appearances. That seems like a perfectly normal foundation for a romance. It’s definitely fine. It’s fine.
“Deserves you right, Monster!”
Calli is transported to the house of Sirius’ family, where she is assigned to serve his younger sister Marcy. The two young women bond, especially after Marcy starts shipping her older brother and his newly purchased human, and conspires to make sure they are together as much as possible. Sometimes you just need to push your middle aged brother to get laid with the help that can’t leave. One of Calli’s visions shows her and Sirius in a tender, naked embrace (presumably doing some Roman/Graeco-Roman/Greek wrestling), and she begins to hatch a plan to escape the villa before it is too late. Will she be able to get away from Sirius? Or will he continue to be really hot and also literally own her? I can’t wait to see the wacky, slave-based contrived misunderstanding that they are required by law to overcome in the third act!
“Who knows what he would do to her. And only the gods knew what she would let him do to her.”
This is one of those historical novels the kids are always going on about, but for the life of me I cannot understand why it needs to be, when the author doesn’t seem to have much interest in making it feel like an ancient, exotic place or time. Anthropologists have a term, “Flintstoning,” for ascribing to past peoples modern values, habits, thoughts, etc. It may not be immediately obvious why the Flintstones need a small animal to live under their sink, except that garbage disposals are a thing to be found in American middle class mid-century detached homes. This book does so much Flintstoning I half expected people to power their chariots with their own feet. At one point someone in Sirius’ family talks about meeting someone in the lobby of the house. The “lobby” of a Roman house is called an atrium. That fact has such cultural staying power that we have the same word with the same meaning two thousand years later. This is literally the easiest thing to get right about a Roman house and our author still whiffed it. I’m surprised they don’t have a game of corn hole in the courtyard and a white Pictish fence out front. Of course, I don’t care about architectural accuracy. I find it more distracting when things like family dynamics or class barriers play out exactly as they would if this were an episode of Riverdale, because those details are actually important to the story. The fact that everyone behaves like it’s 2005 makes the slavery aspect way more distracting than it would be if there were some reason to place the story in ancient Rome. Aside from our society’s burning desire for Dawson’s Aqueduct to finally be greenlit, I’m not sure what necessitated this choice of setting.
For better or worse, depending on your mood, the story and writing style cleave very closely to genre expectations. Our love interest is a soldier, and soldiers aren’t allowed to fall in love. But even though he’s a monster who pillages the innocent, he is deep down in his emotional core really, really good looking. In fact the author uses the phrase “beautiful monster” so many times I wondered if she was trying to write a different kind of YA romance. By far the most distracting aspect of the writing style is the fact that the dialogue will switch speakers within the same paragraph. I can’t tell you how many times I misread some pithy rejoinder some character made against herself. But while it is amateurish in places, ticking off all the boxes of a bog standard romance is enough to make a book pretty fun, and certainly you won’t be disappointed if you’re looking for some bawdy fun to flip through on a lazy day. It’s seven dollars on Kindle, which is a little high considering the book is doing roughly the same thing as thousands of others at half that price. But I doubt many other YA romances have such a baffling use of setting, so maybe it’s worth a gander.
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