Rome and Nero are fascinating subjects, as are the vestal virgins, women who are educated and held sacrosanct, priestesses of of the goddess Vesta who are responsible for all the legal documents in the Empire. Matching a vestal virgin with Nero, throwing in a Sibylline prophecy, and fleshing out the story with details of what it was like to live in Rome during the time of the rise of Christianity and Nero's excesses is what Vestal Virgin is ostensibly about, and the author, Suzanne Tyrpak, has done her homework, evoking a Rome in all its glory and squalor.
What Tyrpak fails to do is flesh out her characters sufficiently and keep the plot moving, finishing up with a bang that fizzles around the edges. However, Vestal Virgin is a good first effort and and intriguing story that offers an intimate look at what Rome was like in the first century.
The story centers around Elissa Rubria Honoria, taken at the age of 9 to serve for 30 years as a vestal virgin. She is dark and beautiful and considered incorruptible by her younger sister and another vestal virgin, both of whom are ready to take her down, charging her with violating her vow of chastity, a charge that will end with her death by entombment.
Nero is fascinated by Elissa and he wants her. Unable to corrupt Elissa, he instead corrupts her younger sister, appointing her a vestal virgin though she is 14 and too old to be considered. Nero changes and violates the rules to get what he wants.
Elissa is, however, in love with a Roman soldier who has become a Christian, studying under Paul of Tarsus, who is under house arrest in Rome. Elissa and the soldier exchange letters but they are not of a sexual nature, and yet their content could condemn Elissa.
While Tyrpak weaves a spell with her words, she loses focus in the middle of the story. The ending does have moments of high intrigue but loses power and leaves the fate of Elissa's younger sister in question. Vestal Virgin begins strong and ends with fizzled satisfaction.
While I did enjoy the novel, I found it weak and unfocused and erratic at times. Vestal Virgin is a good first novel from a talented author who needs a bit more experience and a good editor to help her tighten the plot and flesh out the characterizations. It's almost there, but not quite.
RATING: A solid C