1976’s Lady of the Bees is the third book in Thomas Burnett Swann’s Latium trilogy. It is a mythological fantasy about the founding of Rome.
In this age supernatural beings are increasingly rare, pushed aside by mundane humans. Mellonia, former queen of the dryads, avoids humans and lives in solitude deep in the forest. She has had human lovers in the past — Aeneas and later his son Ascanius — but now she avoids concerning herself with human affairs.
She breaks this policy when, on a whim, she rescues infant brothers, human twins. Her choice shapes human history for millennia to come.
Amulius won his position as king of Alba Longo by deposing his unworldly brother Numitor. Amulius spared his brother, believing him no threat. Numitor’s daughter Rhea was forced to become a Vestal Virgin. No threat of rival claimants to the throne from her womb! Or so Amulius believed.
Rhea explained her pregnancy as divine intervention from the god Mars. Amulius preferred a more mundane explanation. The unlucky lad the king settled on as the likely suspect was executed. Rhea was interred alive in her tomb. Amulius gave quiet orders that Rhea’s twin sons be quietly killed as well, but like so many evil masterminds, did not supervise the task himself.
The priest to whom the task ultimately fell had no intention of killing the twins. Instead, he set the babies adrift on the river, for the gods to save or not as they pleased. Mellonia and her wolf retrieve the two boys from the river. The dark one is named Romulus, the golden-haired one Remus. Fished from the river by dryad and wolf, wet-nursed by the wolf, both survive.
Years later, the babies have matured into young men. Remus is a proto-scientist; he’s dreamy, studious, and fascinated by nature and the gods. Romulus is far more interested in practical matters. They are determined to win back the crown stolen from their grandfather. They gather a small army of supporters and besiege Alba Longa. But the walls are tall and Amulius’ mercenaries well armed. Overthrowing unpopular Amulius will require boldness and cunning. Not to mention the assistance of certain supernatural beings.
If there is one thing this book teaches us about the classical world, it is that everyone seems to have been very horny. Also, consent is not something about which people are especially concerned. They’re more interested in whether they have the power or cunning to take what they want.
I had originally read this remembering only that it was the seventh book in the least impressive of the three Ace Special series, the one that was not edited by Terry Carr. I forgot that this novel was also the third book in a trilogy. There is probably a lesson here about doing background research before reading the book in question, not just after I had read it and was preparing to review it. In any case, this novel works as a standalone, as series books so often did back then.
The informed reader can make an educated guess as to how the plot has to play out, at least as far as Remus and Romulus are concerned. Both will survive infancy. They will survive long enough to found Rome. Once the city is founded, Remus is fated to die at his brother’s hand1.
This leaves Swann quite a lot of room for embellishment. Italy near Alba Longo may not have the wealth of mythological beings it once did, humanity having a corrosive effect on the wondrous. Nevertheless, sufficient remnants remain to greatly complicate the plot.
Unsurprisingly, despite hopeful moments, the novel is a tragedy. Remus is bright but doomed. Mellonia’s reward for helping the infants is similarly unpleasant. Mythological beings can only fade away or be murdered; the world itself can only decay. Romulus founds his city, but at great cost, and of course we know it will fall2. The story is beautifully told but rather depressing. Its impact is intensified by the brevity of this compact work.
Lady of the Bees is out of print. Frankly, this surprises me. Swann is the sort of lyrical fantasist I’d expect to that some nostalgic publisher would have kept in print. Not so, apparently.
1: Apologies to any reader for whom I have just spoiled the founding of Rome.
2: Apologies to any reader for whom I have just spoiled the fall of Rome.