Love and Romanpunk is an ambitious era-spanning collection of four short stories tied together by a few central themes: history and who writes it, the story of a particular family, Romans and the Romanesque, vampires or "lamia" (a variant thereof), and power and womanhood. In the first story, "Julia Agrippina's Secret Family Bestiary," the eponymous Julia Agrippina, kin to Emperors Claudius, Nero, and Caligula (sometimes more than kin and less than kind, given that her uncle Claudius marries her against her wishes and both he and her son want her dead at points), gives us the lost, true testament of her family history, composed on the eve of her death. It has a lot more monsters than the official record. In the second story, "Lamia Victoriana," the Wollstonecraft sisters become romantically embroiled with a pair of vampiric siblings. In the third, "The Patrician," Clea Majora, a young Australian woman living in a neo-Roman tourist trap village meets Julius, the nephew of Julia Agrippina. Julius is doomed to immortality—at least until he can successfully kill off all the remaining Roman monsters. They continue to meet throughout Clea's life. In the final story, "Last of the Romanpunks," Clea's grandson Sebastian deals with an uprising led by his crazed ex-girlfriend Eloise, who's a bit too into "Romanpunk" and, more problematically, fancies herself the new vampire overlord of Earth.
In addition to shared central themes, to different degrees all of these stories share the same problems. I really wanted to like Love and Romanpunk for the aforementioned ambition of, and the fun promised by, its avowed project, which represents an intermediation of classical, speculative, and feminist leanings. Seldom have I felt such a disparity between the book I eagerly started and the book I still more eagerly, but for the wrong reasons, finished.
To start, the prose style largely ranges from briskly pedestrian and obvious to flat-out bad. There are a few bright moments, say in the dreamy, haunted second story—"and gasps her mouth against my own" (p. 40) might strike some as too purple, but it's an unexpected, striking description of a kiss. Whole passages in "Lamia Victoriana" create a smoky, evocative atmosphere of unheimlich menace. You can feel its descent from classic eroticized, sapphic vampire fiction such as Camilla.
More generally, however, one is treated to gems like Julia's "Caligula was supposed to look after us, but his attention was fixed upon the awful battle, upon the bleeding peck marks that blazed in the skin of the soldiers and our brothers. He was smiling, his eyes bright, and even at the age of four, I knew there was something terribly wrong with him" (p. 13). Given that the popular perception of Caligula is so overwhelmingly negative, this authorial conclusion seems terribly easy. It functions as a cheap means of characterizing Julia as astute. There's also an element of "telling" rather than letting readers come to their own interpretations.
Any time we leave the past, the writing gets markedly better. More detail creeps in, the characters have stronger voices, and the shaky pacing is less obtrusive. While there's nothing wrong with a slow, seeping story, there is something amiss when the narrative is conveyed in such a way that the reader is burdensomely aware of the wheels turning rather than involved with the actual substance of the work. Despite these pacing issues, the book feels overstuffed. To give depth to its two-dimensional characters, properly explore its themes, and give substance to its alternate world, it might need to be three times as long as it is.
Julia Agrippina's story focuses heavily on her life and that of her sisters, both of whom are also named Julia. Love and Romanpunk expects us to side rather uncritically with the Julias and their allies rather than the women who oppose them. In the last story, modern characters say "[t]he Julias were . . . heroes" (p. 91), that Julia "and her two sisters were like secret agents and paranormal bodyguards to their brother. They fought monsters and assassins" (p. 100) and that "women with the name Julia are—kind of superheroes. Warriors, soldiers, hunters . . . basically they're mighty" (p. 104). The text and this universe's posterity don't necessarily maintain that the Julias lived unfailingly moral lives, but the book never really affords readers the opportunity to question their right to bloody retribution for wrongs done to their immediate family. "Claudius had to go, before he had a chance to take back the honors he had allowed us . . . I thrust a sharpened stake deep into his heart, giving him no chance to defend himself" (p. 30). The story's heroines function in the mode of modern male action heroes in Taken, Die Hard, and the like. The various Julias who crop up in the rest of the book are similarly the heroines of their stories.
While there's a certain gender-parity in having that kind of hero, what's strange and uncomfortable is not just the easy equation of a capacity for violence with heroism, but also the way other women are diminished in contrast, perhaps in order for this to work. In the first story, the death of the three Julias' father and the seething hatred this creates in them for Livia, who ordered it, is given a lengthy description for such a terse book. Their sufferings throughout life are lingered over in pathetic detail, to the extent they can be by the book's business-like prose. In contrast we receive almost no information about their opponents—women like Julia's aunt Livia, Poppaea, the mistress who convinces Julia's son to kill her, and Eloise, from the final story—and about what motivates them to oppose the Julias and to kill others. This is especially strange as these women are largely indistinguishable from the protagonists, except that they are on different sides in this competition for power. They all seem to share a thirst for it (especially in the form of the throne), supernatural natures, a willingness to treat people as expendable means to an end, physical might and/or effective agency, and cunning. Yet the sufferings and ambitions of Livia and her ilk are unknown, not dwelt on.
The story's evil women are as enigmatic, seemingly almost as non-sentient, as the harpies and hydras that need disposing of. Neither Livia nor Poppaea have any convincing motivations (or any stated motivations at all, or even lines, in Poppaea's case). When Claudius's wife Messalina, by herself, faces down the monster she has accidentally roused, Julia calls her a "silly bitch" for attempting to stand and fight. Fanny Wollstonecraft's murderous lesbian lover, the more ambiguous villain of "Lamia Victoriana," is similarly silent. Eloise, the psychotic ex-girlfriend in "Last of the Romanpunks," is a hideously selfish, genocidal femme fatale. Her brother only assists her out of desperation to pass the gift of immortality to his terminally ill wife, but Eloise needs no such excuses. It is enough that our close, approachable, reasonable modern narrator, who used to date her, dubs her a crazy "stone cold bitch" (p. 83). I don't need to empathize with a novel's various villains at every turn. I do need to have enough information about the novel's various unworthy women to understand them, any of them, at all. This information, however, is absent, even in "Lamia Victoriana," which deals almost entirely with the lover of one of the Julias. Without this information, without the idea of the alternate and, for the characters, valid narratives which compel their actions, we cannot empathize with them. Think of how well a successfully morally ambiguous work like Game of Thrones makes you understand, if not like, the motivation of almost everyone involved in a complicated conflict. This is the sort of depth Love and Romanpunk elides. As with the weak description of Caligula highlighted above, part of the problem is the narrative's habit of "telling" rather than letting readers come to their own interpretations.
Another problematic instance of language comes when Julia Agrippina meets with her hated grandmother, the vampire Livia, who has just picked out Julia's husband. "Marriage is the purpose of a woman" (p. 17), Livia says, making sure that we are aware that Livia is one of the book's Bad Women. While Love and Romanpunk is largely concerned with feminism, it makes clear at every turn that not all women are eligible for this validation. Clearly Livia is not a "feminist." Her speech does not accord with standards of feminist discourse—standards that do not yet exist in her time. Because the book doesn't care that much about its language other than as a means of getting readers to the finish line, and because it doesn't much trust those readers' intelligence, it says this with inescapable clarity.
Livia is thus a "Bitch" (p. 3), and so while girl power sure is awesome, this woman doesn't count. She is a toxic hater of girl power, with none of her own. She and women like her should be shamed and should probably die. Julia relishes the prospect of such an inglorious fate for her uncle's "half-witted wife" Messalina (p. 26): "she was under the impression she could do something to combat the monster. I willed for her to do so, in hopes that the silly bitch might get her head snapped off" (p. 27). Nuanced female antagonist too busy acing the Bedchel test to be nice, you say, with a trace of hope in your dulcet tones? Dash such hopes. Over and over again in these stories, women are, seemingly arbitrarily, or at least for reasons difficult to agree with, designated as worthy or unworthy. This is usually accomplished with the appellation "bitch," a term the book uses to discredit enemies of the protagonists, which is only once employed with any affection.
Other than being designated worthy by the text, the novella's heroines have almost nothing to recommend them. Her own traumatic childhood aside, when Julia chortles at her own cleverness at having "found slave girls for [her husband] to burn out his anger on before he even reached my bed" (p. 33), she's eminently easy to loathe. When whining about Livia's desire to take the name Julia, "the only thing we [she and her sisters, all Julias] had" (p. 17), Julia seems to forget that in a massive empire fueled by slavery and geographic classes of sub-citizenship, members of the royal family, however precarious their positions, are still among, say, the top 100 most privileged people alive in the entire world. You can have a morally ambiguous heroine if you're prepared to make her sufficiently interesting to bother reading about in the face of her massive entitlement and general horridness. But not only does Julia, like many of the book's characters, have little to recommend her, she's internally inconsistent. On one hand she wonders whether, had her sister lived, they'd have torn each other apart trying to vie to control the throne, and on the other she drippily reminisces about "how beautiful we were, how mighty and strong and loving" (p. 36). It's hard to be that invested in the Julias' special, loving Bond of Sisterhood when Julia Agrippina thinks she could have been willing to backstab her sister and crawl over the corpse in order to get her son on the throne. Either Julia is a highly unreliable narrator, or she's simply weakly drawn.
Worthy women solve problems by killing monsters—nothing else seems to be a safe means of entering Club Girl Power. They don't try to work out any other solutions, not even when the monsters don't seem wholly vile or to want to kill people. They don't have any virtues or traits of interest other than their super strength. Bad things happen to them, but then, they make or allow worse things to happen to other people, so the uniqueness of their long-suffering but indomitable characters seems rather contested. Julia doesn’t speak up when her son Nero repeatedly beats his wife Octavia, and Julia herself has replaced Octavia's mother, goaded her brother into suicide, murdered her father, and deliberately plotted to undermine Octavia's claim on Nero's loyalty. The character offers only the feeblest justifications for her bald lack of empathy. Why is Octavia, who is not mighty per se but is at least as much a survivor of atrocities as the Julias, a "lesser breed of woman," worthy of "no respect" (p. 34) in Julia Agrippina's eyes, and in the narrative's? The Julias allow us to ask a Strong!Female!Character versus a strong character, who is female question.
The first story, and to a certain extent all the subsequent ones, makes it clear that the name Julia, in certain contexts in this universe, is very powerful and special. No explanation is given as to why, or as to what that specialness of soul actually entails, other than super strength, or possibly just exceptional competence. It seems to have something to do with womanhood, but then our Julia's nephew Julius is a Julia of a sort, so who can say? The term, with its vague positive charge, doesn't seem to actually designate anything substantial, and much less does the book offer anything interesting as to the origin and significance of Julia-hood.
The family is part vampire, part werewolf, maybe a bit dragon and a touch naiad, which sounds pretty overwrought. To be fair to the book, in the penultimate story "The Patrician," which is lively and readable, the family's hybrid nature is discussed in relation to the Gryphon, which is part lion, part man, and part scorpion. The line of Julia are composite creatures, plural in themselves. But I'm not sure that rethinking isn't too little, too late. Nothing much is done with this intriguing supposition, and while the sideways inclusion of Mary Wollstonecraft (better known as Mary Shelley), who (in our universe, though not in the book) wrote Frankenstein, could further complicate this postmodern notion of hybridized, composite, alien self-hood, that seems like giving an idea that's floated rather than explored too much credit.
I also question, in Julia Agrippina's case, whether it's a great idea to write historical fiction characters that show none of the internalized worldviews of oppression, as if all that prevented their real counterparts from claiming agency in their lives was their own sad lack of sass. Julia speaks with somewhat jarringly anachronistic, unshakable conviction of her equality with the men in her life, casually referring to times she was "distracted with the business of government" and "in a meeting with foreign dignitaries" as though her special Julia nature has melted through the entire fabric of patriarchal thought. Misogyny is always complicated by privilege, and a royal woman of ability might well have enjoyed greater license than that which was given to others. However it seems as though Julia Agrippina, unlike even more modern female rulers and powerful consorts, never faced significant opposition on account of her sex in this political capacity. In a way social justice is a technology, like car engines and light bulbs. People were still complicated, widely varied, opinionated, and thoughtful in the past as today, but they didn't yet have the technology of second wave feminism any more than they had light bulbs. While some women enjoyed considerably political agency, how they exercised that power, conceived of it, and were perceived by others should not be able to be mapped identically onto a modern conception of empowered, action-heroine womanhood. It's not historically honest. Doing so erases a whole legacy of feminist struggle and progress, and whitewashes the challenges of the past. Historical fiction, however, is frequently inhabited by very modern characters who negotiate the patriarchy like a jungle gym of wholly external structures and obstacles rather than an internalized, pervasive force which intermediates the characters' identities and potentialities. Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy is a pleasurable romp with similar issues. Roberts is not the only writer with who does this, but Love and Romanpunk is an egregious example of the problem.
Historical figure name-dropping for cheap reader connection occurs throughout the book to eye-roll-provoking levels. With the Julias it makes some sense. We're ostensibly following a young woman from the royal family, and her circle is bound to include several people we've heard of. Name dropping the Who's Whom of History creates a little thrill in the reader, who can delight in her own perspicacity at having recognized this person, and in the opportunity to engage with that famous figure via literature. Readers can also do some of the work of characterization for the writer based on their knowledge of this person, their preexisting investment in them, and their corresponding belief in this person's importance. Writers can and have interestingly used and problematized historical figures, as Tolstoy did Napoleon in War and Peace. Name dropping does, however, perhaps more readily offer the opportunity to prioritize the light, indulgent, and reader-friendly uses of the trope, as I think Roberts does. Having the Wollstonecrafts be who they are doesn't do anything for the narrative other than provide a "hurr hurr" moment. It's like when Star Trek: Generations had Captain Kirk in the film, and all he really got to do was punch out a scientist. If you're going to use big names, then use them well, give them something to do that's important and uniquely suited to who they are, or consider whether you need these familiar characters at all.
Love and Romanpunk really lays open the problem of "___punk" as a genre, and of "Vampires Vampire Vampires: What If the Past Had More of Them?!" In this case, the Roman Emperors are like, vampires and stuff. And rather than being actually transgressive, experimental, or interesting, the book is almost insultingly weak and predictable. Love and Romanpunk's smugly self-contented Girl Power feminism is ambiguous and under-developed, and the book seems to represent a ritual taming of subversive "punking" energies. This "Romanpunk" doesn't simply appropriate the strategies of steampunk, which would seem stale and inappropriate, but neither does it try hard enough to be its own organic creation. Love and Romanpunk wants to be a sweeping, knowing, empowering jaunt through history, but it's actually tepid, neither challenging nor fun. When, in the afterword, the author describes writing the book as the source of "a delicious discomfort" (p. 105), and follows that statement up with "I regret nothing" (ibid.), my uncomfortable but true response is that she hasn't done anything particularly worth regretting.
Erin Horáková (email@example.com) is a southern American writer. She currently lives in London with her partner, where she's doing post-graduate work in Comparative Literature. Erin blogs, cooks, is active in fandom, and works in a tea house.
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