July 14, 2004

A Mist of Prophecies, by Steven Saylor

This is the latest of Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series, a collection of mystery novels set in ancient Rome in the waning days of the Roman republic. The current installment is set in the period after Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon; Pompey, Caesar's chief rival, has fled to Greece, and Caesar and his legions have gone after him. Meanwhile, things are chaotic in Rome itself; some support Pompey, some support Caesar, prices have gone through the roof, and only the bankers and big landlords are doing well. If Caesar defeats Pompey--or, alternatively, if Pompey defeats Caesar--it's clear that things will calm down.

But what if Caesar and Pompey both die in battle, far from Rome? What then? There's a slim possibility that a clever, ambitious man could sweep into power on the wings of a popular revolution. Marcus Caelius thinks he just might be that man.

As always, Saylor's viewpoint character is Gordianus the Finder, the man Cicero called "the last honest man in Rome." Gordianus is getting on in years, and his son Eco is doing most of the finding these days; Gordianus spends most of his time tending his garden or hanging out in the Forum listening to the other geezers belittle each others' politics. He doesn't want to get involved with rebellion; he just wants to live comfortably and enjoy his children and grandchildren.

And then a strange woman comes to Rome. She has no memory of her past; because she occasionally falls into fits and utters strange prophecies, she is soon dubbed "Cassandra". She is strange, and unkempt, and beautiful, and Gordianus, for all his years, is captivated.

And then she is murdered. Gordianus gives her a funeral, since no one else comes forward--and seven of Rome's most notable women attend, briefly, on her funeral pyre. Why? Why was she murdered? And who killed her? It falls, naturally, to Gordianus to find out, as revolution brews in the streets of Rome.

Alas, I don't find Gordianus as compelling as I once did. He's become rather a sad sack; paint him dreary. And then, although Saylor's focus on historical events lends the Gordianus books much of their interest, it's also a problem. Each book involves some crux in the Roman political record, and that means that the books are never really about Gordianus or his doings at all. It's also why Gordianus is so old and tired only eight books into the series; there are only so many major political upheavals in one man's life span.

So what can I say? The book was published in 2002, and it's been knocking around the house for ages; I only picked it up because I was going to be waiting at the airport for an hour or so, and it was more or less the first paperback I put my hand on as I was going out the door. It didn't disappoint me--I'm not sorry I read it--but I'm not terribly excited about it either.

Posted by Will Duquette at July 14, 2004 06:24 PM