Wednesday, November 3, 2010

From the shelves of the Paco library

In the comments section of my last book review, Rebecca mentioned Steven Saylor. By coincidence, I was, at the time, reading Saylor’s collection of short stories, The House of the Vestals, which makes an excellent topic for today’s “Shelves” feature.

Vestals features Saylor’s much admired ancient Roman detective, Gordianus the Finder, and serves to fill in the chronological gap between the author’s first Gordianus novel, Roman Blood and the second, Arms of Nemesis. In these stories, we learn how Gordianus acquired his bodyguard, Belbo, and we see the origins of his friendship with the goodhearted patrician senator, Lucius Claudius. We are also treated to more background material on Eco, the mute street urchin whom Gordianus has taken in as a son, and his beautiful Jewish-Egyptian concubine, Bethesda (a slave who is far more like a wife than a servant).

The stories themselves are elegant puzzles, sometimes inspired by actual events; however, although I enjoy a good mystery, it is almost always the author’s skill in characterization and dialogue, plus the “special touches”, that attract me to any kind of genre fiction, and Saylor does not disappoint. His depiction of Cicero as an intelligent, but vain and priggish, advocate is not only amusing, but probably very true to life. Saylor’s development of Eco is fascinating, as we watch the boy cleverly overcome his inability to speak by developing his own language, consisting of gesticulations and facial expressions. And what a pleasure it is to come upon Lucius, the bored senator who finds meaning in life through the pursuit of justice, and in the excitement of assisting Gordianus in several of his inquiries. Another aspect of the stories that makes them so thoroughly enjoyable is the author’s wide-ranging historical knowledge of the period (the final years of the Roman Republic). The inclusion of many small details, with respect to everything from architecture to religious ceremonies to clothing, provides a realistic context for the action.

I am simultaneously embarrassed, and thrilled, to admit that I have not read but one of the novels in what Saylor calls his Roma Sub Rosa series. Embarrassed because Saylor’s is a body of work that I feel I should have delved into a long time ago; thrilled because I have so much good reading ahead of me. If Vestals is indicative of the overall quality, then I’m genuinely in for a treat, because this is one of those books that I was saddened to come to the end of. I don’t think I can give a better recommendation than that.


RebeccaH said...

I heartily recommend all of the Gordianus books, but make sure you also read Saylor's Roma. It's a series of short stories that encapsulate the history of Rome from its origins to the ascension of Caesar Augustus, and provides some surprising insights into some of our oldest legends.

RebeccaH said...

Oops. Roma calls itself a "novel of ancient Rome", but it really is a series of stories.

Michael Lonie said...

I read the first Gordianus book but didn't much like it. For a novel of ancient Rome it seemed to be hitting an astonishing number of modern PC themes.

I prefer the SPQR series with the main character being a Roman noble Decius Caecilius Metellus. He is a deadly enemy of Publius Clodius so a friend of Clodius' enemy Titus Annius Milo, another political gangster. Decius has a sardonic view of things that is appealing. I must admit that the author, John Maddox Roberts, doesn't go in for extensive character development, but then few mystery authors do.

Cleopatra shows up a few times. Decius comments about her and Mark Antony something like this:

"Mark Antony was later criticized for his devotion to Cleopatra, his willingness to give up Rome and everything for her sake. But I knew Cleopatra when she was ten years old, and poor old Mark Antony never had a chance."

His comment about his time in Alexandria is: "What's one more riot in alexandria's history?" Roberts (who is also a classical scholar, by the way) threw in a riot where Decius is almost killed by a mob because he is accused of killing a cat. This actually happened, when a visiting Roman equestrian was accused of killing a cat and a mob torn hi to pieces. I think it was in Augustus' time.

Steve Skubinna said...

Stephen Dando-Collins has written a series of regimental histories on various notable legions of the last Republic and early Principate, all of then highly recommended. I think my personal favorite is "Cleopatra's Kidnappers," about the two cohorts of Pompey's Sixth Legion that surrendered to Caesar at Pharsalus, having fought a rearguard action to let as many of Pompey's troops escape as possible. They were the core of the small body of troops Caesar took to Egypt and were key in his success there.

As to Cicero, Anthony Everitt wrote a very engaging biography of the man. Cicero was nearly unique in Roman history in achieving high office without attaining military distinction. In fact, he was an indifferent soldier.

Steve Skubinna said...

Jeez, what did I do, kill the thread?

Paco said...

No, no, Steve, not at all. Thanks to Steve and Michael for referencing those other two series. More great things to read!