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.