I really enjoyed this lyrical and surprisingly poignant short novel. With meticulous research, lush imagery, and admiration and respect for this pair of lovers, Melanie McDonald has lovingly combined a well-rounded portrait of Hadrian as a man as well as an emperor, with a tender and unconventional coming-of-age story set amidst the decadent prosperity of the ancient Roman empire.
Plucked from obscurity as a small boy and favored by Hadrian for his beauty and Greek heritage, Antinous is destined for a life he never could have imagined. Given a royal education and a luxurious lifestyle, he is groomed to be Hadrian's companion. It's a strange relationship; simple and complex at the same time. Though Antinous is Hadrian's preferred companion for seven years, they both seem to hold each other at arm's length; neither of them entirely comfortable enough in the relationship to give completely of themselves. Hadrian, because he is unable to fully trust anyone, and Antinous, because he can never get past Hadrian as the emperor and god-like figure, even after seven years of witnessing his faults and weaknesses. Yet in the end, both of them create the ultimate tributes to each other.
This is the only book I've ever read about an important historical figure from the point of view of his male lover, and I didn't really know what to expect going into it. Not much is really known about this relationship, aside from Hadrian's obvious grief upon Antinous's death. Rather than focusing on the sexual relationship, (though there is one, to be sure), this story is more an examination of the dynamics of a relationship between two people of different class and the emotional effects of subservience and self-sacrifice; the humanization of a young man known to history as the deity created by those he left behind. This is historical fiction from a different perspective, and I thought it was very interesting, very well-written, and really rather haunting.