DE BELLO ALIENO (Delos 2014, winner of 2013 Odissea Award 800 copies sold so far, rave reviews, good chart placement). Steampunk and sci-fi novel set in 1st century Rome
Set in an ancient Rome that is very different from the one we know: the Eternal City is connected to other Italian cities by a railway network, to the other Mediterranean ports by steam ships, and the legions are armed with cannons and rifles. Basically it is the beginning of an industrial revolution like in 18th century England. All this progress has developed thanks to Caesar, who, sent into exile by Sulla, fled to Alexandria where he met the scientist Heron and became an able and astute scientist and entrepreneur himself.
These events are the setting for the story but are not narrated directly because in the year in which the story is set, 49 BC, they have already for the most part become the norm: they are mentioned in passing by the characters and above all they are written about in the excerpts, some authentic some not, from Plutarch’s “Life of Caesar” which open each chapter.
Each of the novel’s characters is a real person from ancient Roman history and even though placed in a Rome that is very different from the actual ancient Rome they behave as the historical originals would have done. The main characters are therefore Caesar, Pompey, Cato, Cicero, Brutus, Mark Antony, and Catullus who often say things recorded in the history books though in a different context.
There are two narrative threads: on the one hand we follow the intrigues of Roman society with Cato attempting to destroy Caesar’s res novae, and on the other the war that breaks out when Wellsian tripods land on the slopes of Vesuvius. The events are not narrated directly but are extrapolated from letters sent between the characters, excerpts from their diaries and their personal notes, newspaper articles, political leaflets, meeting minutes and so on. This allows us to see the events from the differing points of view of the various characters expressed in their own “language” (for example Cicero writes in a very different style to Catullus) and I feel it also gives a certain rhythm to the story despite requiring a little extra work on the part of the reader.