The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy The Wolf Den as much as I did. A book about prostitutes in a Pompeii brothel didn’t sound very appealing to me, particularly as Ancient Rome has never been one of my favourite settings for historical fiction, yet it has turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list this year. Once I got into the story I found it difficult to put down and am looking forward to reading the second book (this is the first in a planned trilogy).

Set in 74 AD, just a few years before Pompeii will be destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, this is the story of Amara, the daughter of a doctor from the Greek town of Aphidnai, who is sold into slavery after her father’s death. Following a series of misfortunes she has ended up at the notorious Wolf Den brothel owned by the moneylender Felix. Amara and her fellow She-Wolves are treated as commodities, existing only to give pleasure to their clients and to make money for Felix. The women have lost not only their freedom but also their identities and even their original names. It’s a miserable life, but Amara finds some comfort in the friendships she has formed with the other prostitutes.

The women working at the Wolf Den come from a diverse range of backgrounds – from Greece, from Carthage or from Egypt, abandoned at birth, taken captive by slave traders or, like Amara, sold off by their own families. There are just five of them at the beginning of the book – Amara, Victoria, Dido, Cressa and Beronice – although more will arrive later as Felix continues to make ‘investments’ in his business. Each of the five, despite some clients seeing them as interchangeable, has her own distinctive personality and her own way of coping with the situation she has found herself in. Not all of the women can remember life before the brothel, but Amara can and she’s determined to regain her freedom.

This is the first book I’ve read set in Pompeii (I do have a copy of Robert Harris’ Pompeii somewhere, which I’ll get round to eventually) and I loved following Amara around the bustling, vibrant city, going into the shops, taverns and bathhouses, taking part in the Vinalia festivities and watching the gladiators in the amphitheatre. We also see inside the beautiful villas owned by Pompeii’s rich and powerful when Amara and Dido are booked to entertain at private parties and get a glimpse of the lives that could have been theirs under different circumstances. Although most of the characters in the book are fictional, the Roman author, naturalist and military leader Pliny the Elder makes an appearance and has an important role to play in the plot. Finally, real pieces of graffiti found in the ruins of Pompeii are used in the chapter headings, adding some further historical authenticity to the story.

The Wolf Den is not always an easy book to read; the nature of the story means there are some quite graphic descriptions of both the women’s work within the brothel and the violence they are often subjected to by the men who pay for their services. Elodie Harper doesn’t shy away from having bad things happen to her characters, but there’s some warmth and humour in the novel too, as well as the beginnings of a romance between Amara and another slave. I can’t wait to read The House with the Golden Door to see how the story continues.

This is book 17/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 45/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

25 thoughts on “The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

  1. joulesbarham says:

    I know what you mean about this book being tricky to read at times – but overall I am finding it a fascinating insight into the world of women in Roman times. It’s a big book – certainly not a quick read – but I am enjoying the sheer immersive nature of it!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it too – and yes, it’s full of fascinating insights. Ancient Rome isn’t one of my favourite periods, but this book really immersed me in Pompeii life!

  2. Pam Thomas says:

    This was one of the best books I read last year, and I’ve recently finished the second in the trilogy, ‘The House With The Golden Door’. It’s also difficult to read at times, because of the subject matter, but it’s vivid, immersive and totally convincing. I’m looking forward to the third in the series (though of course we all know what’s looming on the horizon – literally).

    • Helen says:

      I did find parts of this book quite uncomfortable to read, but that just made it all the more realistic. I’m intending to read The House with the Golden Door soon, so I’m pleased to hear you liked that one as well. I hope we won’t have to wait too long for the third book!

  3. Cyberkitten says:

    Excellent! I picked this up a little while ago. I’ve been to Pompeii so it’ll be interesting to see if the book prompts any memories (some of the graffiti was pointed out to us by the tour guide). I have the Harris book scheduled for later in the year/early next year.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve never been to Pompeii but it’s somewhere I’ve always been interested in visiting. I’m sure the fact that you’ve been will add to your experience of reading this book! I love Robert Harris and will get to his Pompeii novel eventually, but have his new book, Act of Oblivion, to read first.

    • Helen says:

      It’s not a book I would usually have picked for myself either, but I noticed it on a lot of people’s ‘books of the year’ lists last year, so thought I would give it a try. I hope you like it!

  4. mallikabooks15 says:

    I can see how this will be a difficult read but it does sound interesting. I have read and did very much enjoy the Harris Pompeii book in which too we meet Pliny the Elder (and the Dr Who Pompeii episode, which was fun). This casts light on a different facet of the city so I think I would like to explore when I can manage.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you liked the Robert Harris Pompeii book. He’s one of my favourite authors so I’m sure I’ll enjoy it too, whenever I get round to reading it! The Wolf Den covers some aspects of Roman life I’ve never read about before, so I would definitely recommend it.

      • mallikabooks15 says:

        I’ve only read a few of his so far, Pompeii and Enigma among them, and enjoyed them all. I intended to explore more of his work, and also Wolf Den since as you point out, the aspects it covers are indeed different from the usual.

  5. Calmgrove says:

    Yours is another laudatory review of this novel that I’ve read, and as it’s a while since I’ve read an historical fiction set during the Roman period this could be the one! While I’m slightly squeamish I know enough history to not be shocked by anything described here – at least I hope so.

    • Helen says:

      This is quite different from other books I’ve read set in the Roman period, with its focus on women and their daily lives rather than emperors or soldiers. It’s quite graphic at times, but not too shocking, I don’t think!

  6. Siena says:

    I love your review! I’ve seen this book before but was hesitant to pick it up as I hadn’t heard much about it in terms of reviews. I’m definitely going to be picking this up soon,I’ve been more interested in Ancient Rome since reading the Cicero Trilogy.

    • Helen says:

      I loved the Cicero Trilogy! I had never been very interested in Ancient Rome until I read those books. It’s still not one of my favourite periods to read about, but I find myself picking up books with that setting more often now than I used to. I hope you enjoy this one.

  7. GoAnnelies - In Another Era says:

    This is such a great series, the second book is equally good and I’m looking forward to the final book. I love books about Ancient Rome, but there are so few of them. Pompeii by Harris is a great read, it’s totally different from his Cicero trilogy (which are the best books about Ancient Rome, apart from Iggulden’s Caesar series), but it’s a good standalone.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you thought the second book was as good as this one – I will read it soon! I agree that the Cicero trilogy are the best books I’ve read about Ancient Rome, but I’m looking forward to reading Pompeii too.

  8. Lory says:

    I will not soon forget the women in this book. I do not want to live in Ancient Rome but it’s good to travel there for a while, if only because it was so foundational for our own culture. It’s difficult but necessary to acknowledge the abusive as well as the laudatory sides. So glad you enjoyed it too. I’ll have to check out those Cicero books!

    • Helen says:

      I suppose it had its good and bad points, like any era, but it’s definitely not a period I would choose to live in either! The Cicero trilogy is excellent – they are probably my favourite books set in Ancient Rome.

  9. Marg says:

    We are planning to go to either Pompeii or Herculaneum when we travel early next year! This could be a good choice to get me in the mood to visit there.

    Thanks for sharing this review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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