Healing hands

June 12, 2010

Commentary – Romanitas, Chapter 3: ‘Steel Cross’

I’m dreadfully sorry for my neglect of this blog for the past three months. There’s really no excuse at all, and I hope it won’t happen again.

With the first two chapters of Romanitas, we were introduced to Marcus and Una. In chapter 3, we meet the third of our main characters, Una’s brother Sulien. The style, length and contents of this chapter serve to underscore the differences in temperament and personality between the two siblings. Sulien is a trusting, extroverted healer who generally thinks well of people. Una is a wary, introverted telepath who thinks (often with good reason) that people are out to get her. To emphasise this, Sulien’s chapter is more expansive and gregarious; we find out more about him and his past than we did about Una in the preceding chapter, and in particular about his experiences as a slave. (In fact, we never discover what Una did while a slave, although I’ve always imagined that, after a long time, she told Marcus about it off-screen. Maybe.)

This is a very uncomfortable chapter to read, because it deals with things that are, hopefully, completely alien to most Western readers of the series: slavery and capital punishment. Sulien, it transpires, carried out an affair with Tancorix, the daughter of his owner Catavignus. When they were caught, he was accused of rape and condemned to death by crucifixion, and it is on a prison ship awaiting this execution that we find Sulien. In his terror at what is to come, he’s dropped out into a kind of desperate, horrified denial, and I always tear up when reading about how full of life he feels, and how he can’t even contemplate the fact that he is about to die.

The chapter also goes into great detail about Sulien’s experiences as a slave, and how they shaped his self-perception. Unlike Una, who is hyper-aware of her slave status, Sulien’s supernatural abilities (he has the power to heal the sick through touch) meant that he was treated as a highly-prized member of the family by his owner. It’s implied that this was, in part, the reason for his downfall: Tancorix was jealous at her father’s greater love for Sulien than for her, and her initiation of the affair was at least subconsciously motivated by a desire for revenge, while Sulien, who never felt like a slave, felt entitled to behave like a free person.

The really interesting thing is that although this chapter is told from Sulien’s point of view and is meant to make us understand why he got into the situation he is in, Una’s point of view – her biases and beliefs – seem to almost bleed into it, so that we come to share her scathing opinion of Sulien’s naïve belief that he wasn’t really a slave in spite of ourselves. (Of course, with Sulien on a prison ship condemned to death by crucifixion, it’s hard to see his trust in the goodness of his owner as anything other than stupidity.) Una’s just such a powerful character to me that I feel her impact on parts of the book which don’t directly reference her point of view.

Of course, the chapter ends with Una rescuing Sulien from the ship and the pair escaping, which is a relief, since despite my rather negative opinion of Sulien’s naivete, I like the guy and certainly wouldn’t want to see him dead. In the final pages of the chapter, the point of view switches back to Una, and reinforces the sheer bravery and difficulty of what she had to do to get Sulien out. Keep her rescue of him in mind, as it’s a theme to which McDougall constantly returns in this series: the characters keep getting caught and rescuing one another from life-threatening situations, and this strengthens the bonds between them. This is, after all, a series with slavery as one of its main themes, and the concept of redemption from captivity is central to this theme.

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