The novel begins with a 3 year old Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus being thrown into a lake by his uncle Emperor Caligula to drown as a sacrifice to the goddess Diana. He is saved by a woman and returns home where he is being raised by an aunt. He did not know his mother, who had been sent in exile after his birth, or his father. His father had been killed. As Lucius learns his family history he becomes aware early in life that it is better to be cruel than dead. He watches as his relatives scheme and poison each other in order to gain power.
Lucius/Nero is fascinated by the arts and athleticism and pursues both of them as he learns to navigate the politics of Rome. His harshest tests come from his mother whose goal is to control the empire even if it means assassinating her son.
Lucius, later known as Nero, is obviously traumatized by the betrayals he experienced in his early life and became a harsh ruler because of it. The novel covers his life from age 3 to 25 with a promise of a part 2 from the author in her Afterword.
The era is extremely well researched. Everything that I learned from independent Internet research into the Roman Caesars was on display in the book. However, the author presents a different Nero. His true interests are quite ordinary and he does not shy away from them even though it is not seemly for an Emporer to participate in them. In the end he does not care what others think because he is the Emperor and if the old rules do not work for him, he changes the rules.
This is a very entertaining book and I cannot recommend it more highly.