The Course of Honor begins with Caenis, a slave to the imperial family, meeting Titus Flavius Vespasian, a member of the middle-class who hopes to make a name for himself first in the army and then in politics. The two feel an instant attraction for each other, but Vespasian is off to war. When he returns, he immediately seeks Caenis out and the two become lovers, though they know that they can never really be together. Vespasian is not allowed to marry a slave, and even if he were, he needs to marry someone who will give him some status. The story follows Caenis through her life, and the small interactions she has with Vespasian until much later, when their lives intertwine again.
It was difficult for me to get into this book. It begins very abruptly and continues abruptly the whole way through. It was the first book Davis ever wrote, I think, and it's clear her style has changed over the years. I just felt very disengaged from the two main characters. It was as though I was watching a movie but the lens was always in panoramic mode to give a sense of the grandiosity, and I never got to get close in to see the details. Caenis is untouchable throughout. She is prickly and hard and difficult to know. Vespasian is easier to know, but we never get in his head, either, and he spends large chunks of the book mostly out of the picture.
While it's easy to appreciate a great and enduring love story, it's harder to believe it when the two people barely interact, spend decades apart, and even when they're together, you don't get a full sense of how they interact with each other. And while I think Caenis lived a fascinating life, going from slave girl to secretary to freedwoman and not only getting along but thriving, I never understood quite how she did it. The feminist in me wanted to know so much more about that, too.
It's hard not to compare this book to the Falco series, in which you get to know all the characters so well and live for the comic and sentimental scenes that show them playing off each other. This book just didn't work for me that way - I felt disconnected from the characters and didn't see nearly as much of the trademark wry humor for which Davis is known. Nonetheless, I'm glad I finally read The Course of Honor, if only to mark it off my TBR list - it's been waiting patiently for me since 2007!