When you're the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, heir to the likes of Tiberius and Caius Caligula, you're pretty well obliged to measure up to a fairly high standard of debauchery. It's expected of you, like wearing the toga and being able to recite your Homer. When they bring on the Libyan eunuchs on all fours dressed in goatskins, you can't turn round and say, No, thanks, I'd rather read a book. (p.38)
I don't read much comic fantasy, so I'm not familiar with Holt's better-known work (though I did enjoy Expecting Someone Taller and Who's Afraid of Beowulf?). A Song for Nero is a historical novel: what if Nero didn't die by his own hand as everyone thought, but switched places with a boyfriend who strongly resembled him, and went on the run with his dead boyfriend's brother Galen? What if Nero and Galen have been roaming around the Mediterranean for ten years, living on their wits as not-very-successful conmen and hustlers? And what if Nero's ready to rediscover himself? His great crime, according to the establishment, was to sing and play an instrument in public. Lucius Domitius -- as he's always known in these pages -- still yearns for recognition of his artistic talent, though he's terrified of being recognised if he actually performs his own work.
A Song for Nero is a pacy romp through the seamy underside of Roman life: slavery, brothels, crime syndicates, disgustingly bad wine, Queen Dido's fabled treasure and Virgil's Georgics (a.k.a. 'On Farming'). There's more than a few similarities to Homer's Odyssey, too, especially as the novel moves towards its conclusion. Galen and 'Lucius Domitius' are oddly likeable characters, considering their lack of morals, general bad behaviour and sleazy pasts. (Holt has Seneca delivering a speech about the virtues and achievements of Nero as Emperor: there's a certain amount of exculpation here. But it's not all hagiography by any means: several characters have very good reasons for wishing Nero properly dead.)
There are few women in this novel -- something I didn't notice until the first female speaking role, if you see what I mean, around page 200 -- and mostly they're rather unpleasant. Luckily Galen and Lucius Domitius don't seem to be greatly interested in any flavour of carnal pursuit: Galen does fall for someone, but this does not turn out well. And Lucius Domitius may have had all the carnal pursuits he can handle for one lifetime. Also, though there's no hint of sexual attraction between the two, it's clear that they are codependent: I hesitate to tag Galen's feelings for Nero as 'love', but there is a strong attachment.
Holt's prose, and some of his imagery, reminds me strongly of K J Parker. There's the colloquial, cynical tone; a certain fatalism; an emphasis on the randomness of life; the sense that there might or might not be something slightly odd, supernatural-type odd, going on, but that it's really not important, just one of those things the universe dreams up to confound humanity. There are some insights into family history at the end of the book that cast both Galen and Lucius Domitius in quite a different light. Reading Holt's description of returning to a familiar house, now run-down and ruinous, felt so familiar that I was sure I'd read that part of the novel before, perhaps in a review: then I remembered similar scenes in several of Parker's novels.
There was the gate, probably the same bit of mouldy old string holding it onto the post as when I'd left; there was the mounting-block, half crumbled away, with weeds growing up through the cracks. There was the well, and the staked-off rectangle of gravel we tried to grow beans in, and right next to the back door, the midden -- maybe a tad taller and nastier-smelling than it'd been in my day, but you can't really call that progress ... (p453)
But maybe it's just that they've read the same books. Or that I'm manufacturing similarities in the prose of two authors I like very much.
And once or twice I thought, this is a better ending than the one in all the books. Far better this way than the big fight scene, stringing the great bow and shooting down the noble lords of Ithaca like stray dogs. So much more sensible, if you will insist on coming home, to settle down in a quiet way, do an honest job of work, raise a good crop of corn and grapes and beans, and not worry about who rules over who, or what the rights and wrongs of it all are. ... the trouble with Ithaca is, when you finally get there, you find out it's moved on, and the place where it used to be is called something else now, and strangers live there who don't hold with your sort. (p. 498)