“Baths, wine and sex make fate come faster.“
Set in Pompeii 74CE, in a brothel known as the Wolf Den, this book follows one of the prostitutes, Amara. There are many ways the girls have ended up here, and Amara’s background is no less tragic: once a beloved and well-educated daughter of a doctor, the death of her father plunges the family into such poverty that her mother sells her as a house servant, only to find her attractiveness sparking too much jealousy from her owner’s wife. It is an act of spite that sells her on as a whore, and so she finds herself owned by a man she despises, desperate to see any signs of a way out for herself.
This was perhaps an odd choice of read for me, because it is entirely uncomfortable reading about women being forced into sexual slavery against their will. Amara hates every part of this life, even as she tries to find comfort in friendship with the other whores. One was found abandoned as a baby, one was kidnapped by pirates – but even if the crime was undone, she is now too ‘damaged’ to ever return to her family. It’s a horrible, awful way of life, and by rights I should have hated spending time reading about it.
But I didn’t. In fact, the hopefulness and glimmers of possibility make this a gripping read. Very dark things happen, but we also see how the tiniest light can make or break these girls’ lives. And – slight spoiler alert – the ending is hopeful, which I tell you because I read the last third massively stressed out that it’d be otherwise.
There’s nothing sugar-coated about this book, from the events to the language. I will say that it doesn’t get too graphic or glorify any of the sex or violence.
Despite the tawdry settings, it’s really interesting seeing glimpses of real life in ancient Pompeii. The gods, the rituals, the different classes, the opportunities or lack thereof. Perhaps one reason for picking it was the contrast to books like The Gates of Athens, and I definitely appreciated the focus being on less privileged characters. There’s something very real about the grime here, as opposed to the superficiality of ‘glory of war’ kinds of tale – and the writing has much more of an immediacy and connection, too. Amara and her friends have a far more personal war to wage, and it was fascinating travelling the streets of the famous ancient city and its ways of life with them.
Book 2 is due out in May, so there isn’t long to wait before I can find out more of Amara’s tale – and I’m rather glad of it, and that I gave this book a chance!
“Either we choose to stay alive, or we give up. And if it’s living we choose, then we do whatever it takes.”
NetGalley eARC: 464 pages / 44 chapters
First published: 28th March 2022
Series: Wolf Den trilogy book 1
Read from 6th-10th March 2022
My rating: 8/10