Slaves Of The Empire #4: Gracus The Centurion, by Dael Forest
August, 1978 Ballantine Books
I wouldn’t recommend taking a long break between volumes of Slaves Of The Empire, like I did; it’s been years now since I read the previous volume, so I was a bit out of sorts while reading this one. As ever, Stephen “Dael Forest” Frances cares little about catching readers up on what came before; there is zero in the way of synopses of previous books, nor are recurring characters even introduced or described. As I’ve mentioned before, it seems clear that Frances wrote the five volumes of this series as one long book.
It must be said, though, that Frances’s rather large cast of characters is pretty memorable – there’s architect Hadrian, designing the new city of Trebula, with his love-conquered slave Haesel; Saelig, brother of Haesel, a freed slave who provides a sort of shelter for other slaves; Brotan, slave-farm owner who found happiness in slavery (the theme of the series); Thane, artistically-gifted brother of Haesel who now works for Hadrian; Mertice, dull-witted sister of Haesel, once owned by foppish athlete Alexander and now owned by tomboy Melanos; and seldom-seen Redbeard, Haesel’s other brother, yet another freedman who has become a successful businessman. And that’s just the “main” characters.
Gradually all of these characters are converging on Trebula, which seems to be Frances’s theme – that, and the aforementioned “happiness in slavery” angle. For again and again these characters thrust themselves into positions of slavery, whether willingly or not, and find happiness under the yoke. But they’re all headed for Trebula; Hadrian is already there, currently engaged in pleasing Valle, a wealthy matron whose husband could really help out Trebula or somesuch. Honestly this is one subplot I’d forgotten, but long story short Hadrian basically has to treat Valle, who lives with him, as a VIP and have lots of sex with her.
The only problem is, Valle is kind of old but refuses to accept it. We’ll be informed of salacious stuff like, “the halos and nipples of [Valle’s] breasts were painted ultramarine blue,” and then Frances will buzzkill it with the mention of the “lifeless sagging of her breasts.” Meanwhile Haesel, who we’ll recall was once a proud young gal who refused to bend her neck to the yoke of slavery, encourages Hadrian to screw Valle a bunch for the good of Trebula, and “happily” tells him stuff like, “I am my master’s slave and obey his orders.” Again – happiness in slavery.
Another recurring theme is how Frances adds more characters to an already-unwieldy pile of them. Last time it was Brotan, this time it’s Gracus, a 40 year-old centurion currently warfaring in Dacia (modern Romania, a helpful footnote informs us). Gracus, ugly as sin and a centurion thanks more to his stolid service record than any intelligence, is winding up his military career. He plans to retire to Rome and live with his brother Flacus, who is married to young Julia; along with their parents, they run a metal shop. Gracus picks up a female Dacian slave, a not attractive one with a long, very long neck, and gawky underfed limbs. He treats her miserably and guess what…she comes to love him, and vice versa.
Meanwhile as for Flacus and Julia – more new characters. Julia opens the novel; having recently lost her three-month old child, she now turns her still-swollen breasts to none other than Alexander, who suckles her in exchange for lots of money. It’s the new “in” thing among the wealthy althletes of Rome – suckling mother’s milk(!). Indeed Alexander later tells arch-enemy/lust-object Melanos, who had a child last volume, that she too should rent out her boobs (“I have always adored your breasts, Melanos.”), but this of course just elicits more verbal sparring between the two.
In fact the Alexander-Melanos stuff is probably the highlight of Gracus The Centurion. It sure isn’t the stuff with Gracus, whose sections are ponderous and too reminiscent of similar “happiness in slavery” routines from previous volumes. But Frances isn’t done; there’s an entire arbitrary part that goes on and on about various female slaves who have been put to use on Brotan’s breeding farm and are now being returned to their old masters in Rome. Ruined, haggard women all, their bodies beaten down by multiple births and miscarriages. Many of them just long for death, which leads to some poignant passages, where previously-wrathful owners, who sent these poor women to Brotan’s farm in the first place, start to feel pity and mercy for their returned slaves.
Speaking of Brotan, when we briefly hook up with the dude he’s had his pal Brotan, from the first volume, make him a slave collar, which Brotan happily straps across his neck for his mistress’s pleasure! All it needs is to have “Fido” on it. Meanwhile we have interminable scenes of Gracus and his Dacian slave making their way to Rome, even stopping off on Brotan’s farm, where another interminable, arbitrary scene has farm doctor Malen trying unsuccessfully to buy the Dacian girl, who is named Nitka.
Frances’s prose still has that clinical feel, indeed to the point that a sort of torpor settles over the book. Even parts that should be thrilling, like Hadrian and Thane hunting a loose lion in Trebula, or Alexander wrestling “a tall, coal-black Negro,” come off more so as ponderous. Frances as ever better excels at the bizarre stuff, like Brotan’s “owner” Vanus whipping him and making Brotan her “serving girl” for dinner, down to dressing Brotan like a fetching female slave. And the stuff with grown men suckling breastmilk is so prevalent in the novel that you have to wonder what the hell was going on in the author’s head.
Gracus The Centurion ends on a cliffhanger, unfortunately; finally tired of Melanos’s taunting barbs, Alexander plans to steal Mertice from her as a “joke.” Meanwhile everyone’s on their way to Trebula, so my assumption is the next installment, which was the last volume of the series, will see everything wrap up in that newly-built city. I’ll try to get to it a lot sooner than I did this one.