Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Welcome to a typical "forbidden fruit" romance scenario in an historical setting. Aemilia is a discontent vestal virgin who manages to fall in love with a man. Naturally, since the vestals must remain chaste, this is considered a bad thing, and so Aemilia is torn between her loyalty to Rome and her love of a slave determined to overthrow Rome. Drama!
Narrated from Aemilia's point of view, the story takes on an intensely personal tone. We feel Aemilia's loneliness, her sadness that her family just packed her away to become a vestal virgin, her sense of estrangement from the other vestals, who offer more squabbles than support. She grows from an uneasy child into an uneasy woman, never able to give herself entirely to Vesta like some of the vestals can, unwilling to throw herself into the politics of her group. It's easy to sympathize with Aemilia, to watch her take a lover and reflect on how unfair it is that she gets caught. But she does get caught; she does have to suffer the consequences. In the end, what does it all mean?
Despite Aemilia's strong voice, her relationships with her fellow vestals are somewhat one-dimensional. It's as if Sherri Smith made the other vestals a certain way in order to emphasize Aemilia's sensibleness. Alarm bells immediately went off in my head, and I thought of other books that do this—pump up the main caracter by surrounding him or her with less-than-ideal companions. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn't enjoy having Aemilia as the narrator. She was just far too biased (and, as I'll later point out, unreliable). From this perspective, The Virgin's Tale becomes a "woe is me" tale instead of a "tragedy of a girl forced to become political scapegoat" tale that it could be. Suddenly the story becomes about what happens to Aemilia instead of how what happens to Aemilia reflects on the nature of the Republic of Rome.
The only other interesting character is Julia, who joins the vestal virgins after Aemilia. The two share friendship and rivalry for the first few years of their service, culminating in an awkward nighttime visit by Julia to Aemilia's room. Here was where the book could have diverged, could have become interesting by making Julia Aemilia's lover, and for a moment, I thought that would be the case. After all, nothing in the description says that Aemilia broke her vow of chastity for a man.
Alas, my hopes were not borne out. Aemilia falls for a household slave, Lysander, who claims to have been born in Greece but is actually just a half-Greek born into slavery in Rome. He is also plotting to overthrow Rome by supporting a patrician's plot while secretly raising a slave rebellion of his own. To Smith's credit, Lysander has enough brains that he's not all brawn—Aemilia and him do seem to fall in love. Still, it's a gooey, carefree sort of love that seems riskless even though Aemilia is, in fact, risking it all. But I'm sure it's OK because, you know, he makes her feel really, really good.
And in fact, depending on the interpretation of the ending, that element of risk completely evaporates. That Aemilia would be caught was never in doubt. The book begins with her being sealed into an underground tomb. However, we don't learn if she gets rescued until the very end. There's reason to believe that rescue may just be a hallucination though.
The part of me averse to happy endings thinks Lysander's rescue of Aemilia is a weak way to end this book. We were built up for tragedy right until the end, and to yank away Aemilia's tragic death and replace it with a happily-ever-after is the ultimate cheat. Truthfully, I also didn't care much for either Aemilia or Lysander, so I wasn't sad to see her go. Much better that she should die for love than escape because someone inexplicably put a door into the side of her tomb and Lysander happened to sneak to where she was buried and help dig her out. Right.
On the other hand, the ending could just be a dream. Aemilia demonstrates herself to be an unreliable narrator several times in this book, most notably with the way in which she fantasizes about Tullia leaving the vestal virgins after her 30 year term of service is up and marrying her lover. It turns out that Tullia was actually caught and executed, her fate identical to what would befall Aemilia. We only learn this at the very end of the book. This, combined with the fact that the method of Aemilia's rescue seems improbable, leads to me to think that it's a dream and not reality. The stress of Aemilia's capture, combined with the depleting oxygen in the room, finally makes her crack.
Since the ending ultimately depends on whether one considers Aemilia a reliable narrator, it's up to the reader how to interpret it. Neither ending substantially changes my opinion of the book. I suppose I should probably just avoid these sorts of historical romances in the future. I picked the book up because it's set in ancient Rome, and I like ancient Rome. It's unfair of me to expect the book to rise above its genre and give me something else, just as it's unfair for a Western reader to expect a fantasy novel not to have magic. Nevertheless, I can't bring myself to label an entire genre mediocre—and that's what The Virgin's Tale is—which leads me to conclude that there are certainly better books in this genre than this one. While it's a far cry from awful, The Virgin's Tale doesn't possess anything that makes it stand out.