Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Mist of Prophecies by Steven Saylor – Review

In 48 BC, Rome is holding its breath, waiting for the outcome of the conflict between Caesar and Pompey. Nobody knows which side to take, everybody expects a bloodshed, irrespective of the winner, supplies are scarce, debts are accumulating, and, basically, the world is changing forever... but that's no reason for a good detective to stop investigating murders, is it?

A Mist of Prophecies is another novel by Steven Saylor in the Roma Sub Rosa series, and we follow yet again Gordianus the Finder as he tries to navigate carefully among the many political factions of the time, balance his checkbook, maintain peace in a household full of adopted children, and, of course, catch a murderer. If you liked the other novels in the Roma Sub Rosa series, you'll love this one. If you liked any of the mysteries set in the ancient world ever written, you'll love Steven Saylor, who's without a doubt one of the masters of the genre. (And, by the way, if you don't know yet what “Sub Rosa” stands for, you'll find out in this novel.)

The highlight of the Mist of Prophecies is the gallery of Roman women: Terentia, Fulvia, Sempronia, Cytheris, Fausta, Clodia, and Calpurnia – all actual historical characters, of which we know relatively little today. Saylor tries to give them a voice, or at least an image, and to imagine which places they held in the web of political intrigue of the age. This approach gives the author a lot of room for creativity, since the historical documents about the women of the time are scarce anyway, and unreliable at best, and the actual detective plot is entirely fictional – but Saylor does not compromise on historical accuracy in other details, which is why he's among my favorites.

Gordianus himself is more Hercule Poirot than James Bond, which does contribute to the impression of authenticity, but not to the character's charm. I for one could sympathize with his financial problems, but I found the romantic plot a bit far-fetched. Then again, after about a dozen of mysteries solved, maybe it was time for Gordianus to get trapped in a love story, like all detectives should, at some point.

The most fascinating character of them all, however, is Rome itself, seen through the eyes of Gordianus – at the same time familiar (in the way New York is familiar to those who watch CSI-NY, without having ever been there) and frightening – the place where anything can happen, and nothing is what it seems. It's good that we have Gordianus to guide us in the maze of streets, and it's even better that Gordianus has a bodyguard to take care of things when they get rough. But in the end, even if Rome is dangerous and unpredictable in 48 BC, you end up envying Gordianus the Finder, for being so closely involved in the events that changed the world. And for his love affair with a beautiful Egyptian.