Review by Lory Widmer Hess
The Temple of Fortuna is the third book in a trilogy that began with The Wolf Den and continued with The House with the Golden Door. This review will inevitably contain spoilers for the first two books, though I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum.
Amara, the Greek woman forced by a cruel fate into slavery and prostitution in the Roman outpost of Pompeii, has changed her fortunes so far as to become the valued consort of an important freedman in Rome. Though obliged to leave her true love and her daughter behind in Pompeii, she now has wealth, influence, and even an offer of marriage. Isn’t this what she’s been working for all these years?
But human security is fleeting, as the history of Rome and its emperors amply demonstrates. Sent by her patron to visit another courtesan, Amara notes that her neighborhood includes both the Temple of Fortuna, where Julius Caesar sacrificed to his favorite deity, and Pompey’s Theater, where he was murdered. Fortune’s wheel stands still for no one, not even the deified ruler of the world.
And so Amara must continue to stay alert, using her considerable courage and intelligence to keep on top of constantly shifting ground. The political climate in Rome is unstable, as one emperor has just died and the next is threatened by a jealous and violent brother. Amara’s visit was meant to glean information about this man, but ends up attracting attention and danger. Her patron decides to send her back to Pompeii to prepare for their promised wedding.
However, things are no safer there, as the eruption of Vesuvius is approaching — known to readers who have been expecting this all along, but naturally unknown to the characters in the novel. Ominous earthquakes are ignored, and even when the eruption begins many want to shelter in their homes rather than flee. In relation to both natural and human-created disasters, human beings always have a hard time admitting the reality of a looming danger. Denial is one way of coping with an overwhelming situation, but sadly, it often proves fatal.
This section draws on the account of the eruption by the nephew of the admiral and scientist Pliny the Elder, which describes how the admiral bravely, though ineffectively, launched a rescue mission to try to help people escape by sea. As usual, Harper manages to smoothly weave her research into the fictional world she has created; having given Amara a connection with Pliny, who granted her her freedom, she can plausibly bring him into the story here. An interview with the author at the end allows her to explain how she brought the sometimes confusing facts into a coherent narrative, which honors the known historical record even as it fleshes it out.
The cataclysm is a central event in the book, but it isn’t its climax. The immense upheaval that has buried cities and transformed the landscape also provides an opportunity for Amara to change her fortunes once again. In the wake of the chaos and confusion that are forcing a reorganization of the social realm, can she reinvent herself and escape her past? Or will it catch up with her again, and push her to a final, decisive act?
Harper’s trilogy vividly brings to life this corner of history, so that we feel we are walking through it in Amara’s shoes. In The Temple of Fortuna, in addition to more ordinary domestic scenes that help to ground us in the world known by women of the time, there are some marvellously dramatic set-pieces — an emperor’s funeral, a battle in the arena by Amara’s formidable friend Britannica, and of course, the terrifying volcanic eruption. Harper brilliantly portrays the power of Rome, both its public face of beauty, wealth, and nobility, and its underworld of deceit, violence, and corruption. At the same time, she keeps her focus on what really matters, both to Amara and to us: the human ties which are the only sure thing we can grasp, amidst all the vagaries of fortune.
Amara’s struggle to keep her hold on these fragile, precious ties, in spite of all the forces that are dragging her away, has been a constant throughout the series. And in this book, both outer and inner struggles reach their height, a battle of the soul that finds its reflection in one of nature’s most awe-inspiring events. When the world around us is destroyed, what will we save? What will be left? Only our courage, our determination, and our connection to one another can determine what survives.
Bridging ancient artifacts and modern concerns, Elodie Harper has taken readers on a truly memorable journey. Whether you have yet to enter into the world of The Wolf Den, or you’re looking forward to your second or third installment, I wish you good traveling.
Lory Widmer Hess is an American reader and writer currently living in Switzerland. She blogs about life, language, and literature at enterenchanted.com.
Elodie Harper, Temple of Fortuna (Bloomsbury, 2023). 978-1838933616, 384 pp., hardback.
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