Friday, January 20, 2006

A Roman Ransom by Rosemary Rowe

Libertus wakes in his home in Glevum weak, disoriented, and in the throes of a serious illness. By his bedside is his patron, Marcus Septimus. Despite warnings from the medicus that Libertus is too ill to speak to anyone, Marcus has come to beg Libertus for his help with a very serious matter: Marcus? wife Julia, and their son, Marcellinus, have gone missing. Everyone has been questioned, yet no one has answers. It?s as if Julia and Marcellinus have vanished into thin air?Then Marcus receives a ransom note wrapped in the hem of Julia?s stola. The message is short and direct: release Lallius Tiberius or Marcus will never see his family again. But who is Tiberius, and why is someone going to such trouble to free him? Libertus must help Marcus with his dilemma: give in to the kidnappers and sacrifice his reputation of being fair and unmoved by bribery, or stand firm and provoke unimaginable consequences?

"For those who like their crime clad in a toga, this cunningly drawn series set in 2nd-century Roman Britain will satisfy indeed. Rich in intriguing and authentic historical detail, and featuring the investigative exploits of Libertus?former slave and amateur sleuth?this is ancient history with a murderous twist."

Scheduled for release April 2006.

Six For Gold (John the Eunuch Mysteries)

[The husband and wife team], "Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, are the most reliable hit-producing machine since The Everly Brothers. Their latest John caper, Six For Gold, is as aureate as its title. In this outing, our hero is sent to the always mysteriously dangerous land of Egypt, ostensibly to probe at imperial orders reported cases of suicidal sheep - an inspired touch, this. While John, with wife and servant, encounter sundry bizarre local personalities and customs, back in Constantinople his friends and enemies are kept busy with intrigues and murders, creating an effective double narrative. Though their scenes are few, we feel the sinister presence of Justinian and Theodora looming over every move. The dungeon encounter between John and the malevolent empress is one of the most genuinely blood-curdling chapters I have read in years. As always, there are many rib-ticking jokes (I may have to sue the authors for permanent damage to said body parts), and the mastery of Byzantine 'Realia' is as impressive as ever." - Barry Baldwin, Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary

Year of the Hyenas : A Novel of Murder in Ancient Egypt

by Brad Geagley

"Year of the Hyenas is a brilliant, original, and unique murder mystery, set in ancient Egypt at the height of that kingdom's glory and power. It is at once a strikingly insightful portrait of a mysterious, complex, and sophisticated society, reminiscent of Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings in its wonderful detail and feel for the past, and a fast-paced detective story that reads like the best of twenty-first-century thrillers. From the oldest known court transcripts in history, Egyptologists have long known about the mysterious death of Ramses III, involving intrigue, ambition, greed, and crimes of passion on a huge, though hidden, scale. In Year of the Hyenas, Brad Geagley takes this event -- a struggle that nearly brought ancient Egypt to its knees -- as the backdrop for a story that is every bit as captivating as the distant civilization it resurrects. At the heart of the novel is Semerket, the so-called Clerk of Investigations and Secrets, a detective half-paralyzed by problems of his own, with a reputation for heavy drinking and tactless behavior toward the great, the powerful, and the holy, a kind of Sam Spade of the ancient world, deeply (and dangerously) addicted to the truth. Hard-bitten, deeply flawed, he is retained by the authorities to investigate what is considered an insignificant murder of an elderly, insignificant Theban priestess. They fail to inform him, however, that they don't expect him to solve the case. In fact, they don't want him to. But Semerket is not so easily fooled, and this is hardly an ""insignificant"" murder. As he delves deeper for the elusive truth, he uncovers a web of corruption so vast that it threatens the life of the last great Pharaoh, Ramses III, and the stability of the kingdom. Even worse, uncovering the conspiracy means more than just putting his own life on the line -- for, unbeknownst to Semerket, his adored ex-wife Naia has fallen afoul of those who would bring down the reign of Ramses, and he soon finds himself having to choose between saving her and saving Egypt.... Merging historical fact and speculation with a nail-biting crime story that could be taking place in the present, Year of the Hyenas is a riveting and remarkable achievement. "

I found the first few paragraphs so well written and vividly descriptive that I was hooked already! Excerpt from Chapter 1: "Hetephras limped from her pallet to the door of her house like an old arthritic monkey. She pulled aside the linen curtain and squinted to the east. Scents of the unfurling day met her nostrils. Sour emmer wheat from the temple fields. The subtler aroma of new-cut barley. Distant Nile water, brown-rich and brackish. And even at this early hour, someone fried onions for the Osiris Feast.

The old priestess's eyes were almost entirely opaque now. Though a physician had offered to restore her sight with his needle treatment, Hetephras was content to view the world through the tawny clouds with which the gods had afflicted her; in exchange they had endowed her other senses with greater clarity. Out of timeworn habit she raised her head again to the east, and for a moment imagined that she saw the beacon fires burning in Amun's Great Temple far across the river. But the curtains fell across her sight again, as they always did, and the flames burnt themselves out.

She pitied herself for a moment, because as priestess in the Place of Truth she could no longer clearly view the treasures wrought in her village -- decorations for the tombs of pharaohs, queens, and nobles that were the sole industry of her village of artists; pieces that lived for a smattering of days in the light of the sun, then were borne to the Great Place, brought into the tomb, and sealed beneath the sand and rock in darkness forever.

Hetephras unbent her thin, bony spine, firmly banishing self-pity. She was priestess and had to perform the inauguration rites for the Feast of Osiris that morning. At Osiris Time, the hour for speaking with the gods was at the very moment when the sun rose, for it was then that the membrane separating this life and the next was at its most fragile, when the dead left their vaults to gaze upon the distant living city of Thebes, girded for festival.

Though she had been a priestess for over twenty years, Hetephras had never seen any shape or spirit among the dead, as others said they had. She was an unsubtle woman who took her joy from the simple verities of ritual, tradition, and work. She believed with all her heart the stories of the gods, and put it down to a fault in herself that never once had they revealed themselves to her. Her husband, Djutmose, had been the spiritual one in the family, having been the tomb-makers' priest when he married her. When he died in the eleventh year of Pharaoh's reign, the villagers chose Hetephras to continue his duties; they had seen no reason to search elsewhere.

Hetephras sighed. That was many years ago. Soon her own Day of Pain would come, as it must to all living things, and she would be taken to lie beside Djutmose and their son in their own small tomb. Perhaps it was only the morning breezes that made her shiver."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Close-up of life in the legions


Close-up of life in the legions: "Ironically, Eagle, a historical fiction series by Simon Scarrow, gives the reader a far better glimpse of what the Roman soldier was like.

The series, now into it?s fifth book, revolves around fictional Centurions Cato and Macro, and the real-life Legate (legion commander) Vespasian (who later became emperor).

The fifth title, The Eagle?s Prey, sees Cato, Macro and Vespasian coming under a cloud of failure, thanks to the incompetence of one centurion. The only way for the 2nd Legion to redeem itself is to capture the British King Caratatcus, who leads the resistance against Rome.

Of course this is no easy feat, as Caratacus has eluded the Romans for two years, since the invasion began. Besides, he still has his army. All of this promises the reader plenty of adventure and excitement, as well as an accurate portrayal of life in the Roman legions. "

In the Name of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy

"Most people are familiar with Julius Caesar. But many of the other generals are just as noteworthy, among them Scipio Africanus. Most people know of Hannibal because he crossed the Alps with his army and waged war against Rome. Ironically, Africanus, who defeated Hannibal and ended the war, remains largely forgotten.

Africanus?s story is remarkable in that he started the Second Punic War (218-201BCE) as a 17-year-old junior officer in the Roman army and ended it as the 34-year-old commanding general who bought about victory. Despite his achievements, he was eventually undone by his political enemies, who trumped up a corruption charge against him. That resulted in Africanus living his last few years in exile from Rome. He succumbed to sickness at the age of 51.

The theme in this book is that of generals being undone, politically. That?s not surprising because during the Republican era, members of the Roman Senate had to serve in the military. Generals were selected from their ranks, and a successful military career paved the path to political success.

During the reign of the emperors, generals were still picked from the senatorial class, but they no longer had any say in the ruling of Rome. However, a successful general could always overthrow the emperor with his army. Indeed, a too-successful general could end up being viewed as a threat by the reigning emperor.

This is a good book, though I could quibble with the fact that some generals such as Sulla and Vespasian have not been given the space they deserve. Also, the reader hardly gets to know what the common soldiers in the Roman army were like: they, as much as the generals, did much to win Rome an empire. Perhaps the lack of existing accounts by Roman soldiers is partly to blame for this. "