The Confessions of Young Nero, Margaret George, Berkley, 2017, 506 pp
It has been a while since I read Margaret George. I have read three of her earlier historical novels and found them a highly palatable way of learning old, old history. (Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles, The Memoirs of Cleopatra, and The Autobiography of Henry VIII.) She likes to dig deep and correct historical misperceptions about these larger-than-life characters who left indelible effects on history.
She attempts to do the same for Nero, a later emperor of the Roman Empire, best known for fiddling while Rome burned. This volume will have a sequel as it covers only the first half of Nero's life, ending with the fire that left Rome a heap of cinders.
Nero was descended from Julius Caesar due to a circuitous family tree that owed much to famous murders and remarriages in the tumultuous ways of empire and power. It opens with an instance of Caligula trying to drown Nero when he was only six and follows his childhood as his ambitious and lethal mother employs a renowned poisoner to do away with anyone who stands in the way of her son becoming Emperor.
She succeeds in placing him as such when he is only sixteen. Nero continues in her tradition, eventually having his own mother murdered! It is a bloody tale in which Margaret George tries to show how a young man who loves chariot racing and the arts embraces the role of power while trying to bring culture to a decadent Rome.
She is a smooth writer, foregoing long sentences and using only enough description to bring the times and locales to life. However, this time I felt a bit disappointed in an almost too simplistic rendering of a complex man. She certainly makes Nero a sympathetic character, as she did with Mary, Cleopatra, and Henry, but in those earlier books she somehow did a better job (at least in my recollection) of bringing the full personality of those rulers to life. I cried when Mary, Queen of Scots died. I wished I could have met Cleopatra. I almost forgave Henry VIII for killing so many wives.
Perhaps part of the problem was that Nero's worst deeds are still ahead of him and I will feel more satisfied when I read the sequel. I read this for a reading group and all the other members loved it. I don't argue that she makes history easy to assimilate and does her research with competence. It could be that Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy (still waiting for that third volume coming out next year) spoiled me for this kind of historical writing.
(The Confessions of Young Nero is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)