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Underground Reading: Anno Mortis by Rebecca Levene

Anno MortisAnno Mortis, by Rebecca Levene, was one of the first books ever reviewed on this site. This was way back in the heady days of 2008 when the zombie trend was still clawing its way out of the earth.

At the time, I loved it, calling it a "massively entertaining romp" - unashamedly campy but packed with well-researched historical trivia. Anno Mortis is like the daydreams I had in class while failing Latin.

Three years later, how's it holding up? Zombies are rapidly becoming (or arguably "have become") a moth-eaten premise. Was Anno Mortis good because it was something new? Does it fall apart under renewed inspection? With a bit of trepdition, I ventured into the re-read.

The book is set in the last years of Caligula's reign. Everyone's favorite Emperor is fully engaged in the sort of unwholesome frolicking that's made him a legendary figure. Being a member of the Empire's upper crust is a nice way to live, but also a fast way to die. Even the Emperor's uncle, the stuttering Claudius is petrified with fear. Caligula and his equally-insane sister, Drusilla, could turn on anyone at a moment's notice.

Nor, of course, are things any better at the bottom. Slaves, gladiators and foreigners don't have rights and are routinely trodden on by all and sundry. From this perspective, Ms. Levene introduces Narcissus (Claudius' slave), Boda (a gladiator) and Vali (a foreign bard). Of the three, only the mysterious Vali is able to move freely around Rome and within society. In fact, he's able to move a bit too freely - popping up in a lot of unexpected places. But Vali's origins are only one of the many mysteries that all wrap up neatly in the end. 

Boda and Narcissus have less secretive origins. Narcissus has spent his young life as Claudius' slave, but when Caligula snaps his fingers, he's given the young boy as a gift. When Caligula finds the terrified Narcissus to be a poor conversational companion, he assigns the boy a miserable clerking duty. Not only is Narcissus untrained in this area, but also Caligula makes the penalties for failure very, very clear. Fortunately (for both the reader and Narcissus), his accounting work leads Narcissus to the mystery of the Egyptian smugglers...

Boda loathes Rome. Captured as a prisoner of war, she's forced to fight as a gladiator in order to stay alive. Anno Mortis opens on a particularly brutal bout in the games, and Boda is forced to kill her opponents - other captives and slaves. After she catches her trainer behaving oddly, she follows him and soon finds herself witnessing even more suspicious behaviour. Boda may hate Rome, but what she sees is far, far worse.

The final protagonist is Petronius, a decadent young man of the upper classes. Petronius lives for pleasure, but finds his fun interrupted by an apprenticeship to Seneca, one of Caligula's aides and the foremost genius in Rome. Petronius spots the elements of an ancient Egyptian ritual in Seneca's paperwork and, curious about his new master's activities, follows him to an old warehouse.

Ms. Levene pulls the threads together quickly. After the initial introductions and the establishment of the setting, all hell breaks lose. Petronius, Vali, Narcissus and Boda all uncover an Egyptian cult and their plot to raise the dead. The plot - naturally  - succeeds, and our heroes are soon stuck in a city that's rapidly filling with the undead of Rome. Caligula is prone to monstrous behaviour, but zombies are actually monsters. The city has gone from the frying pan into the proverbial rotting, shambling, flesh-eating fire.

And zombies aren't the only supernatural element. Ms. Levene pulls out all the stops and gleefully introduces evil warlocks, mad cultists, jackal-headed monsters out of Egyptian myth and, just for kicks, the occasional Norse god. As the center of the Empire, Rome seems to have inherited all its nightmares.

Upon re-reading, the book holds up - primarily because of the author's work in three key areas. First, the action sequences are amazing. Second, the protagonists. Third, for a simple book, Anno Mortis has one hell of a complicated ending.

The Best of Tomes of The DeadFor the action sequences, it is important to make clear that this is pulp fantasy. As many cheeky historical references Ms. Levene sneaks in, the book is driven by slashing weaponry and the lurching undead. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Anno Mortis' shamelessly over the top chariot scene, which still might be my favorite set-piece sequence in any Abaddon book. There are also re-animated Roman legions, orgies and escaped lions a-plenty. If there's anything in Rome that can be made undead and/or feral, Anno Mortis has it.

Anno Mortis is also driven by three unconventional characters: a teenage slave, a lusty bisexual fratboy and a female barbarian who is the only one of the three with any real maturity. Narcissus is clever and Patronius is entertaining, but the book's heroine is unquestionably Boda. Unlike the others, she has no attachment to Rome, and needs to do a bit more thinking about what she's doing and why. Her actions make her the most noble character of the lot - Anno Mortis has a recurring theme of sacrifice (both the "stabby knife" and the "selfless" types). Boda has the most to lose with the least to gain. There's also something pleasantly progressive about having the female party member be both the muscle and the brains. The other heroes are useful - but Boda is competent. 

Finally, the book comes together in a complex mash-up of classical mythologies that, in my case, really did benefit from a re-read. If the "what" (zombies) is unveiled early in Anno Mortis and the "how" (evil bugs) soon follows, the "why" is kept a tight secret until the final pages. There are a lot of players involved, both mortal and immortal, and it takes an explosive chain of conclusions to reveal them all. Needless to say, the stakes are not only much higher than just Rome, but also more personal. What a god wants, the whole world may have to give.

To freely lift from my own original conclusion: "All said and done, Anno Mortis is a massively entertaining - and oddly educational - romp. From sieges to orgies; tigers to chariot races; it pulls out all the stops in providing unceasing fun." And as a footnote, Anno Mortis isn't just another chapter in a passing fad. Good pulp is timeless, and this pulp is very, very good indeed.

[An extract of Anno Mortis is available for your download & perusal. Anno Mortis is now available as part of the Best of Tomes of the Dead collection from Abaddon. The other two books included - Matthew Smith's Words of Their Roaring and Al Ewing's I, Zombie aren't too shabby either...]