The Love-Artist

When Xenia first meets the lanky Roman ambling along the Black Sea coast, she sees a multitude of fantastic creatures frolicking around him. When Ovid first glimpses the girl with water-colored hair rising from a pool, she seems the embodiment of the mermaids and witches who live in his imagination. So begins a love match which proves fateful for Rome's most popular poet.

Xenia's spells to make him want her work; Ovid takes her with him when he returns to the city. Along with the heady physical attraction between them, he is coming to view her as both muse and model for his ambitious new work. Horace and Vergil are favorites of Augustus, but Ovid's The Art of Love drew the emperor's condemnation, and the Metamorphoses have not rehabilitated him much in official eyes. This time, Ovid vows, he will write about Medea, a suitably grand and serious subject. The patron who chooses him seems to guarantee protection from imperial wrath as well as financial and moral support while he works on his new project.

Meanwhile, Xenia starts working at her own profession in Ovid's home. She doesn't view Augustus's edicts against performing sorcery as an obstacle. How could she, feeling herself so close to capturing the essence of being? Xenia sees true visions of the future, so she knows Ovid's poetry will still be read in centuries yet to come. She wants to share in that immortality, and believes her alchemical and mystical manipulations will help her do so. She tries to cure a little boy of the virulent red fever by similar means, and when that fails, even aims at resurrecting him. As the denouement approaches, readers get a glimpse of the mix of medicine, magic, and metaphysics she plans to use--a medley which must have been common, and feared, in the ancient world.

The Love-Artist, Jane Alison's first novel, is a brilliant and compelling story. The prose both sparkles and steams, full of adjectives and images in reflection of the classical poets' style. Alison's pacing is far from classical stateliness, however. As the protagonists enmesh themselves in intrigue, events and consequences pile up and the story turns into darker territory. At the very end the author still springs some surprises. The Love-Artist is not a book for everyone, but readers interested in the ancient world, literary history, or just good writing won't want to miss it.