A direct sequel to Oliver and Henry incorporating the events of author Michael Hartwig’s previous work (set in 16th-century Rome), A ROMAN SPELL finds Oliver and his husband Giancarlo in the early years of fatherhood. Although they live a comfortable life with mostly-supportive friends and family, an openly-gay family is still unusual in Rome; and when their son Luca begins to show oddities which Oliver suspects are supernatural, he and Giancarlo begin to worry about just how different their son will turn out to be.
A ROMAN SPELL establishes a kind of comforting queer fantasy. Oliver and Giancarlo are wary but not closeted cisgender gay men, one drawing on a sizeable trust fund, the other an affluent financial advisor; they not only live in Italy but own historical properties in Rome itself; they eat out regularly and take ski vacations in the north; they have friends and former lovers, and have a close relationship with the surrogate who carried Luca and babysits him regularly, but never truly interrogate their mostly-conventional, monogamous domestic arrangement. Not all LGBTQ stories need be or should be about struggle or trauma, but this particular story rests heavily on a bed of privilege. That’s fine–it’s not only fiction but fantasy–but these aspects of the protagonists’ lives are far more aspirational than representative for most queer people today, especially those in their thirties or younger. Nonetheless, this does allow Oliver and Giancarlo to grow and evolve in more interesting ways than the story of their meeting did in Oliver and Henry.
The abrupt, emotionally-intense courtship of a naïve 20-year-old Oliver by 30-year-old financial advisor Giancarlo played somewhat poorly for both characters, but by the time of A ROMAN SPELL, both men have settled further into their identities as individuals, spouses, and fathers – a far more interesting moment in their relationship, especially as older Giancarlo begins to struggle with feelings of age and domestication. This aspect of the marriage deserves even more story time than it gets: the first serious disagreement between two loving partners, especially in ways that suggest they may not fully share values they once thought they did. That intense emotional complexity provides the most interest to the reader. Luca, their son, accentuates this by genre-bending what could otherwise be a realistic domestic drama. Luca’s storyline is essentially a horror plot: a child appears to have knowledge that they could not possibly have; they may be communicating with, or inhabited by, some other entity. It’s actually within this context that the privileged family life of the protagonists makes the most narrative sense: some of the greatest horror upsets the sanctity of domestic perfection. Although ultimately, some of this material connects to the author’s other work, the plotline might best stand alone as a narrative outlier; that makes it all the more satisfying as it, in turn, fuels the central emotional action between Oliver and Giancarlo.
Michael Hartwig’s A ROMAN SPELL effectively balances supernatural and fantastic elements with the fundamental fears of first-time queer parents struggling with domestic bliss.
~Dan Accardi for IndieReader