Caesar may be the nominal protagonist of this last novel in a series of six chronicling the demise of the Roman Republic, but the presiding spirit is that of Octavian (later Augustus), Caesar's successor and Rome's first emperor. McCullough's Octavian is as complex and gifted as her Caesar, but far less moral, just or merciful—a fitting ruler for a Rome grown too unwieldy for republican government. Blessed with the same immediacy and breezy style that made the tumultuous first century B.C. come alive in previous volumes (The First Man of Rome; Caesar: Let the Dice Fly;
etc.), McCullough's heady novel begins with Caesar as dictator of Rome. Brilliant, ruthless, ascetic in his habits and devoted to the welfare of Rome, he enacts a series of reforms while consolidating his power and fathering a son with Cleopatra. The Egyptian, here portrayed as spoiled and shortsighted but passionately in love with Caesar, is just one in a panoply of richly imagined characters: Cato, obdurate republican and traditionalist; Mark Antony, a crass brute with a streak of animal cunning; decent Brutus, batted between his mother, the poisonous Servilia, and Porcia, his vengeful wife. Caesar is a bit too perfect in McCullough's telling, and Antony too monstrous; the novel also suffers from a sameness of voice throughout. But the skillfulness of McCullough's portrait of Octavian will make readers wish more novels were in the offing. Introduced as a guarded, talented youth, he is transformed by Caesar's assassination into a merciless, retributive man—or perhaps he simply shows his true colors. The book ends in a dark blaze of vengeance with his pursuit and destruction of Caesar's assassins. (Nov. 26)
Forecast:Some 25 years after
The Thorn Birds, McCullough is still going strong. Sales should be on a par with those of previous works in the series.