Happy to share another reader review, this time from Olga Walker, a PhD candidate and herself a historical fiction/non-fiction writer. Big thanks, Olga!
Based on rigorous research, author Victoria Collins has written a book
that encapsulates a story about women in Rome 114BC. The main characters in
this historical fiction novel are the priestesses of Vesta. Collins takes the
reader on a journey through the lives of these women in the lead-up to an event
which will be life-changing for them.
As a reader I loved this novel and that Collins does not shy away from the harsh realities of life for women at that time.
Of note is Collins’s Foreword where she highlights that the story of the
can only be told in fragments, because fragments are all we find, and fragments are all we remember. (Collins, 2018: Foreword, p. 5).
is structured in nine chapters, consisting of short and long passages and
includes reference to research by scholars of Roman history which Collins has
entitled, ‘Fragments’. These fragments of history act as interventions and help
contextualise the incompleteness of the story that remains about the Vestal
Virgins. More importantly, they highlight how fragmented the nature of history
writing can be. Collins is a great writer and her use of language complements
this notion of fragmented history writing when it occasionally sits outside the
story, for example,
Ever killed anything but kittens before, junior? (Collins, p. 9).
of fragments has been used to form the structure of the novel and is sustained within
a dimension of connectedness to nature’s elements of Fire, Earth, Water, and
Air as the reader follows the actions of the main characters, Secunda and
Amelia. Collins’s approach keeps the story focused and the reader engaged as
she builds a picture of what might have been daily rituals in the lives of the
Priestesses of Vesta.
research of the history of the Vestal Virgins Collins visited the location in
search of a sense of connection to the area where the story takes place. This
has enabled her to give the reader vivid descriptions of the temple where we
can visualise the interactions of the priestesses with the powerful elite of
Rome, the people whom the Vestal Virgins serve, and how they bring together the
principal elements of nature to their sacred hearth. Collins writes in a final
note to the reader that,
it was a time when the sacred included connection to the earth, air, wind and fire. (Collins, p. 256).
The significance of a work like Fire
and Sacrifice is that in telling a story about women’s history that has
almost been lost, it also raises the issues of politics, power, class, and
gender equality in relation to how women were chosen for the role of a Vestal
Collins has an awareness of the fragmented nature of researching and
writing history and her work is a good example of how this can be used to write
a story set in the past. The direct linking of the creative writing in the
novel to the research done by scholars provides a platform where history and
historical fiction can work together. When stories are written with a
perception of the incompleteness of what is remembered and how history has been
written in the past, the reader benefits by being left to draw their own
conclusions on the author’s stance when writing a story such as Fire and Sacrifice.
reader I loved this novel and that Collins does not shy away from the harsh
realities of life for women at that time. Maybe more could have been written
about the families from whence these vestal virgins came, but there is enough
in the novel about the division between master/mistress and slave and the
politics of the day to satisfy the reader. Nor, does she romanticise the
position that the Vestal Virgins held in Rome at that time.
Collins’s first historical novel and I hope it won’t be her last. Her other
work includes Fast Effective News Writing
for Nonprofits, and I believe she is working on a contemporary fictional
novel. It is for the reader to decide, but I recommend that a journey through Fire and Sacrifice be taken.