CATEGORY: NON-FICTION, MATHEMATICAL HISTORY
In general, I like historical mysteries as a break from my steady diet of hard-boiled and noir type detective novels. I especially like mysteries set in ancient Rome. There's something so comfortingly familiar with the Roman setting, yet so distant. When a fictional Roman laments how dangerous walking in the streets at night is these days, I can only smile and think about walking around in Anacostia. Some things never change.
Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder is a central figure in a series of novels set in Ancient Rome, during a pivotal time in history-- The Marius-Sulla Civil War, the Spartacus Revolt, and the Founding of the Empire by Julius Caesar. It's a great background for murder-- one which SHOULD emphasize the historical events going on around the murder.
Fortunately, Saylor weaves in 'current' events rather deftly in Roman Blood (note bene: it's my first reading of one of his Gordianus novels. I don't have anything to compare it to). Gordianus, a freeman occupied as a "finder" or detective type, exercises the arts of deduction far in advance of Sherlock Holmes' day. In Roman Blood, Gordianus is called upon (by Cicero, no less) to solve a notorius murder (a paricide, which is evidently the worst crime in the Roman pantheon). The hook is that Gordianus must accomplish this feat in eight days-- all of this with the last days of Sulla transpiring in the background. In terms of historical detail, it's a great book. In terms of characterization, I was not that impressed. Gordianus seems a little flat to me-- he has none of the foibles and juicy background that I've seen in Falco (from Lindsay Davis' similar Roman era mysteries set in the time of Vespasian, of course. I'm sorry, the comparison has to be made).
Still, the plot had many fine twists and turns, and proceeded in workmanlike fashion. I enjoyed the bits about Rome and culture-- apparently Saylor is something of a scholar.
Summary: I'll read more from Saylor, though I don't think I'll invest in hardcovers. Not bad, but not great either.
Lots of Soldiers Work for Civilians They don't Like, but these Romans had It Worse than Most-- Their Commanders were Blue-Skinned Aliens!
A follow on to the excellent RANKS OF BRONZE by David Drake, published by Baen Books sometime back in the 1980s. The premise is that a ruthless syndicate of intergalactic traders kidnap Crassus' legion that was historically captured and enslaved by the Parthians (during the Roman Civil War era). The syndicate is governed by a Star Trek style non-interference edict that dictates use of crude technology on low-tech worlds. The Romans, naturally, are very, very good at this kind of warfare.
The follow-up, FOREIGN LEGIONS, is not a novel but a collection of novellas and the first short story that was the inspiration for RANKS OF BRONZE. The rest of the book is penned by other writers (not Drake).
These are the stories included:
RANKS OF BRONZE
SIR GEORGE AND THE DRAGON
LAMBS TO THE SLAUGHTER
A CLEAR SIGNAL
THE THREE WALLS--32nd CAMPAIGN
CARTHAGO DELENDA EST
Of the novellas included, Sir George (by Eric Flint) was the best-- basically a retelling of Ranks of Bronze, only about 900 years later or so, during the time of Edward III. Lambs to the Slaughter (by S.M. Stirling, who I usually don't like) was short and sweet, a story about a plot to destroy the Legion and what one hard-nosed centurion does to prevent it. A Clear Signal really sucked; it was anachronistic and rather silly in the midst of the others. The Three Walls was rather good, if somewhat jingoistic. Carthago Delenda Est (By David Weber) is rather good, but strains the concept far too much... though the idea of portraying what happens to Earth when the Romans who escaped in THE RANKS OF BRONZE come home is a good one.
Summary: Enjoyable, to be sure, but very uneven. Somewhat brought down by the modern era story, which was trite and hackneyed. Still, I got it for a couple bucks used, so who am I to complain?