A Noble Captive
Set on Crete during the days of the Roman Republic, A Noble Captive by Michelle Styles was definitely an unusual historical and largely an enjoyable one as well.
Tribune Marcus Livius Tullio is captured on the high seas with his men and brought by pirates to Crete. When the pirates come to pay tribute, Marcus is able to remember just enough of the rituals of the temple goddess to request the protection of the goddess Kybele. Upon hearing the ritual words, the sibyl feels bound to shelter the Roman prisoners on the temple grounds until their ransom comes from Rome.
We as readers quickly learn that something is amiss. The “sibyl” is in fact Helena, the sibyl’s assistant and niece. Because the sibyl’s position amid the rival factions of seafarers is precarious at best, Helena is trying to protect her seriously ill aunt by appearing in disguise until her aunt hopefully recovers. Marcus figures out early in the story that something is not quite right at the Temple of Kybele as well and he also finds himself quite drawn to the sibyl’s beautiful and intelligent assistant. The two form an alliance and friendship of sorts, though the romance in this novel is definitely of the slow-burning variety.
From a historical perspective, I enjoyed the story quite a bit. As Helena and Marcus get to know each other, their very different worldviews come into play and the author does a good job of showing them navigating that. Marcus supports Rome without question, and he will not be swayed from his conviction that many of Helena’s problems would be solved if only her island would throw in its lot with Rome. Helena and her people strongly distrust Rome and its growing ambitions – probably with some reason – and while she is personally drawn to Marcus, she does not view Rome as a benign power. While Marcus’ internal monologue is awkwardly worded on occasion, the dueling viewpoints felt believable and added tension to the story.
For such a short book, the author also does a notably good job of presenting readers with unexpectedly nuanced “bad guys.” Frequent references are made to piracy in the ancient Mediterranean, and we as readers see it from several different viewpoints. Helena sees displaced people trying to survive and an island that owes its survival to the provisions and protection provided by the captains, while Marcus knows well the theft, violence and destruction these crews leave behind.
My one major beef with this book is the pacing of the romance. Given the circumstances, a slow-burn love story between Helena and Marcus makes perfect sense. However, even the initial stages of attraction and mutual yearning felt too muted here. The backstory developed well, but the leads needed to develop a bit more chemistry together in the early portions of this book.
If you love historical fiction but sometimes find yourself wary to take a chance on a book that might not have an HEA, this novel may be right up your alley. The romance is very much central to the novel’s plot, but the backstory is so well-developed and rich with detail that I think it will appeal to readers of historical fiction as much as readers of romance.