is a novel sketched as it were in the margins of Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian
. It adds little, though, to the story of Hadrian and Antinous, and the few moments which openly invite comparison between the two books only draw attention to a difference in quality.
It's not that bad. If you have an interest in Roman history, this tale of a Greek country boy who became the Emperor's ‘beloved’ has some points of interest and McDonald has done plenty of research into the time and place. Unfortunately the book doesn't wear its learning lightly, and some passages – lists of commodity prices in Rome for instance – seem little more than a way to infodump some of the things the author has researched. Similarly Antinous's tendency to compare everything to Greek myth seems less like the behaviour of a second-century teenage diarist and more like the behaviour of a 21st-century novelist who wants us to know she's read Hesiod.
Conversation scenes are a little laboured, with a tendency to give us too much information (for my taste anyway). And the historical setting does sometimes tempt the author into rather clunky quasi-archaic word choices, uncolloquial parenthetical asides, and occasional poetic lapses which didn't work well for me:What a happy hound I was in those green and gold days, content to bask beneath the emperor's gaze, loll at his feet and watch him in silence. Looking back, I can see how such adoration, innocent though it was, might well seduce its object with as much efficacy as the oft-honed skills of a jade.
It's all rather infelicitously-phrased. I seem to be concentrating on the negatives here, but that's not because I think the book is a waste of time, but because I think there is a good novel somewhere in here that's been slightly buried by a few literary affectations and, perhaps, a lack of confidence in what the narative voice should be.
I actually read this straight after reading Yourcenar, which probably didn't help. It made an interesting footnote, but not much more than that.