Carce is not the Roman Empire, but is based on the Roman Empire of the later days. Corylus is the son of a Roman general and a local girl that he met on the frontier, but she left him. Now, Corylus lives in Carce, and studies philosophy with the teacher Pandareus.
Varus is a fellow student at the school and the son of a Senator named Saxa. When Corylus saved Varus from a beating at the hands of a bully, Varus took Corylus into his heart as a friend, and invited him into his home as well. Now Varus is making his debut as an epic poet, and he's invited Corylus to the fete along with Corylus's manservant, Pultro, who used to be a sergeant in the army under Corylus's father.
Also in the house that night are Varus's sister, Alphena, who is training with the arms-master and has a deep longing for Corylus, but who finds herself becoming shrill and arrogant in his presence, and her new stepmother, Hedia, who Alphena detests because she is scarcely older than Alphena herself.
Hedia loves her husband, which was entirely unexpected for her- she only married him for the protection of his arm and his name, but she has come to see that her husband is essentially harmless, and a good man. But she is worried about a man that her husband has come to know and treat as a trusted advisor, Nemastes.
Nemastes is a foreigner, and has great magical power, or so he claims. But even as Varus is reading his poetry in his father's great hall, something, some force takes him over, making him declaim words of prophecy in an old woman's voice, a prophecy about the Legions of Surtr, about creatures of fire that will destroy Carce. But can they be stopped? And if so, how?
As Varus and Corylus go with their teacher to peruse the Sybilline books, Alphena and Media have gone to a temple to see who Alphena's bridegroom will be. But after chanting all night, Alphena recieves a most unwelcome prophecy- that Alphena's destined groom is a dead general who died over 200 years ago- and she will rule with him as Queen of the Underworld- which Alphena most definitely does *NOT* wish to do. But as the threat of Surtr's legions grow ever closer, Varus prophesies Carce ending in fire and molten stone, and it also transpires that Varus has been selected as the agent of the forces of Surtr in this world.
But can Corylus, Alphena and Hedia save each other and Varus from the Legions of Surtr and the Underworld. Can Varus be saved from his grim fate, and can the four from Carce save their city from burning in fire?
David Drake, at the beginning of the book, tells us that Carce is *not* Rome, no matter how much it resembles it- but in reality, Carce is just Rome with the serial numbers filed off. Everything is named the same (Palatine Hill, Sybilline books and so on), but then, Carce has fantasy races like Dryads, and as it transpires, Corylus may be part Dryad himself.
Unlike most of David Drake's books, this book is not really a book of mass combat. Most of his other books I have read, are ones like Hammer's Slammers or Bolo, where combat makes up a large part of the story. But this story is as much about gathering information as fighting, and with two of the main characters being female, you might expect men to be doing most of the fighting. But Alphena is as much a warrior maiden as her brother is a magician, and Hedia has her own way of approaching obstacles.
I found the going a little hard at first- because ofthe lack of fighting, and the need for the story to get going a little, but this is a story that draws you in slowly and builds to a strong finish. Because the book seems a little scattered at first, it takes a bit of time for the plot threads to weave smoothly into a coherent whole, but when it does, the book builds to a rip-roaring finish. This is merely the first book in a quartet, and it's obvious that the enemies will be based on the four elements- the next will be water.
I do recommend this book, but keep in mind the rather slow start, and you may have to read for a while until the action really starts getting good. Otherwise, it's really good book with lots of action and adventure. Recommended.