Review 1356: The Ides of April

Cover for The Ides of AprilFor a long time, I followed Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco mystery series set in Ancient Rome. Davis knows her period, and the books are amusing, but after a while I got tired of them. A few friends have recommended her newer Flavia Alba series, so when I found the first one at the library, I decided to try it.

Flavia Alba is the daughter of Marcus Didius Falco and Helena Justina, who adopted her as an abandoned and wild fifteen-year-old in Britain on one of their cases. Hence, I was vaguely aware of her in some of the Falco books. At the beginning of The Ides of April, she is a young widow who has become an enforcer in her adoptive father’s footsteps.

As a female enforcer, she doesn’t get the best cases. She is trying to get her client, Salvidia, off the hook in a lawsuit against her company for running down a young boy. The aedile, Manlius Faustus, has advertised for witnesses to the accident, so she goes to his office to find out if anyone has left a statement. At the office, she encounters two key characters, Tiberius, who works for the aedile, and Andronicus, an archivist, with whom she begins a flirtation.

Flavia Alba’s case very soon becomes more sinister as she learns that her client, Salvidia, is dead of no apparent cause. A visit to the undertaker leads her to understand that a lot of healthy people are dying for no apparent reason. She begins investigating these deaths despite being warned off by the aedile’s office, but soon she is working with them in the person of Tiberius.

Unfortunately, although I enjoyed this book in some ways, there was nothing new here. Flavia Alba’s jaunty, flippant first person sounds exactly like Falco’s. Davis avoids too much repetition by hardly mentioning Flavia Alba’s parents, even when she goes to visit them, but by then I would have been happy to meet them again.

As to the mystery, there is one character with a hidden identity that was obvious to me, and I was onto the murderer fairly quickly, at least mistrusting this character almost immediately. The story arc is very similar to Davis’s first book, Silver Pigs, in that the main character encounters someone who may be a future love interest.

So, for me anyway, been there, done that.

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Day 1193: Pompeii

Cover for PompeiiI was just as short way into Pompeii when I realized I had read it before, probably when it first came out. Leave it to Robert Harris to make a page turner out of a story that everyone knows the end to.

The novel begins a mere two days before the horrendous eruption of Vesuvius. Marcus Attilius Primus is the newly arrived aquarius for the area—the engineer who is responsible for maintaining and operating the aqueduct that provides water to the towns along the bay. His predecessor mysteriously disappeared two weeks before. Soon after the beginning of the novel, Attilius discovers that the aqueduct has stopped running. He mounts an expedition to Vesuvius to try to find the break.

On the course of his urgent journey to repair the aqueduct, Attilius runs afoul of Numerius Popidus Ampliatus, a powerful citizen of Pompeii. He is also attracted to the man’s daughter, Corelia. When in his work on the aqueduct, Attilius figures out what is happening on the mountain, he has to avoid assassins sent by Ampliatus as he endeavors to rescue Corelia.

The novel also follows Pliny, who as admiral takes the fleet across the bay in an attempt to make observations and rescue people.

Harris has done his homework, and his descriptions of the eruption are terrifying. He must have had the time frame right, but my only quibble is that Attilius has to cover so much ground before he gets to Corelia, I can hardly imagine she would still be alive when he got there. This is another well written, suspenseful novel by Harris.

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Day 975: Master & God

Cover for Master & GodFor many years I faithfully read Lindsey Davis’s entertaining mystery series set in ancient Rome and featuring informer Marcus Didius Falco and his lovely wife Helena Justina. I only stopped reading after about 20 books because I was a little tired of the situation. Still, I occasionally pick up one of the series.

So, when I saw that Davis wrote a straight historical novel about the reigns of Domitian and Vespasian and Titus (Domitian’s father and brother), this seemed perfect to me. The novel covers the whole of the Emperor Domitian’s reign and has as its main characters Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a Praetorian guard, and Flavia Lucilla, a hairdresser.

And this was a bit of a problem. I initially had a hard time getting into this novel, and one reason, I think, was the sort of bifurcated story of Domitian’s reign. Gaius Vinius and Flavia Lucilla are just too far removed from the action to integrate them successfully into this story. The result is that the bulk of the novel is exposition, pages and pages of the author telling us what’s going on rather than events being told through the story of its characters.

Later, the two main characters become more important to the general thrust of the novel, and it improves. But for most of the novel, we’re left with a two-pronged approach, Domitian’s reign on the one hand and the romance between the two main characters on the other. This approach even becomes three-pronged during several years when Gaius Vinius is prisoner in Dacia. I couldn’t help contrasting this novel with Colleen McCullough’s excellent Master of Rome series (about Sulla, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony), or even better, Robert Harris’s series about Cicero (reviews upcoming).

This isn’t to say that I didn’t eventually settle down and enjoy the novel. I did. I just didn’t think it was one of Davis’s best. Occasionally, a hint of her trademark sardonic humor appears, but overall, I feel that she struggles to keep the novel moving.

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Day 935: Acté

acteActé was Alexandre Dumas’ first novel and a partial inspiration for Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. As with most of Dumas’ work, it is based on actual historical characters. That being said, my research tells me that it is unlikely that Acté was a Christian convert.

This novel begins in Corinth in the year 57 A.D. Corinth is preparing to hold a competition of wrestling, chariot racing, and singing. Acté, a beautiful Greek girl, is on shore when a bireme arrives containing one of the competitors. Acté falls in love with this man, Lucius, at first sight, and he appears to fall in love with her.

Lucius wins all three competitions but in a manner that seems to fill the audience with dread. He also behaves in an oddly commanding way. To the reader, things don’t look good for Acté, but she heedlessly runs off with Lucius, leaving her home and father behind.

It is not until their arrival in Naples that Acté learns with horror her lover’s true identity. He is the Emperor Nero. Acté is further horrified at the behavior of his court, especially the dissoluteness shown during feasts.

Nero’s formidable mother, Agrippina, actually approves of Acté and hopes that by her innocence, she will discourage Nero from his excesses. But in shock one night at the behavior during a feast, Acté runs to Agrippina for shelter. Unfortunately, that is the same night that Nero has decided to have his mother murdered by sinking her ship with her on it. Agrippina and Acté are almost drowned, but they get away, and Acté is rescued on the shore by the Apostle Paul. Agrippina, although briefly rescued by Acté, ends up dying.

There are lots of descriptions of races and fights and battles in this novel, but its focus is on the fall of Nero and the role Acté played. Acté herself is just a cardboard figure prone to fainting, which is interesting since she is strong enough to swim to shore from the middle of the Bay of Naples, supporting Agrippina, and is described in terms of an athlete and Diana the huntress.

Delphi Press editionIn addition, the many pages wherein St. Paul describes his conversion and in doing so recounts most of the life of Christ, are deadly dull and unnecessary. If his words are meant as the inspiration to convert Acté, I believe they would be more likely to put her to sleep.

All in all, this novel is interesting as the start of Dumas’ career but is not in itself the most compelling of historical novels. It is based on the most damaging of the accounts of the life of Nero, who has been rehabilitated to some extent in more recent scholarship.

Note that the cover at the top is for a French-language version. The only English-language version I could find had just a black cover. My own version is a Kindle collection of complete Dumas works, published by Delphi Classics, shown just above.

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Day 554: The Testament of Mary

Cover for The Testament of MaryIt is years after the crucifixion. Mary is living a quiet life in Ephesus, visited by two of her son’s disciples. It is clear their visits are unwelcome, as they have been trying to force her memories to agree with the documents they’re writing. But Mary has always seen her son’s followers as men with something lacking in them, and she insists on telling her her own truths.

This provocative novella takes the position that Mary was not a believer but was simply trying to save her son from his fate. She grieves his loss and regrets that at the end her courage failed her. While the disciples try to place her and Mary (Toíbín does not name anyone Mary Magdalene, but that is whom he means, I assume) at the grave witnessing a resurrection, they were actually fleeing for their own lives.

While the novella seems to accept some of the miracles, the raising of Lazarus is more of a horror than a wonder. Mary also notices that the jugs of water are brought forward quickly at the wedding at Cana and that only one of them was opened beforehand. Toíbín evokes an atmosphere of feverish excitement and hard fanaticism during these scenes, wherein both Jesus’ enemies and his followers push her son toward his fate.

This novella, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is thought-provoking in its exploration of cult-like origins for Christianity and the shaping of Christian myth after Jesus’ death. As always with Toíbín, it is meticulously and beautifully written.

Day 165: Alexandria

Cover for AlexandriaFor years I avidly collected all of Lindsey Davis’s Didius Falco mysteries. My passion has cooled a bit, as it usually does for series mysteries, but I still enjoy them enough to pick them up when I find them.

Marcus Didius Falco is a cynical, rascally, wisecracking “informer” during the Roman Empire of Vespasian. I have followed his path from the first book when he met Helena Justina, the fiery, unconventional daughter of a senator. Falco has had to work his way up from the plebeian rank and earn enough money so that he can legally be permitted to marry her.

In Alexandria, the 19th novel in this series, Falco and Helena Justina have been married for awhile when they travel to Alexandria with their two daughters, their adopted teenage daughter, and their mongrel dog for a vacation and visit to his uncle. Almost immediately upon arrival Falco is plunged into an investigation when his uncle’s dinner guest of the night before, Theon, the head of the famed library, is found dead, locked in his own office.

Of course, Falco has to figure out how Theon was murdered and why. He soon finds that several of the library’s scholars may want Theon’s job. Of course, people begin dropping like flies, including a philosophy student who is mauled by a crocodile. Falco begins to suspect that something else might be going on.

Davis’s books always involve a multitude of interesting, shifty characters and lots of dirty politics and other shenanigans, and Falco is always engaging and amusing. Davis does a convincing job of re-creating the ancient world in her books.

If you are interested in this series, I recommend that you start with the first book, Silver Pigs (recently renamed The Silver Pigs). Although the mysteries are stand-alone, developments in Falco’s personal life make it more enjoyable if you read this series in order.

Day 147: Quo Vadis

Cover for Quo VadisI picked up Quo Vadis because I so much enjoyed Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Polish history trilogy, as you know if you read my review of With Fire and Sword. This novel is about a young Roman patrician, Vinicius, who falls in love with Ligia,  a Christian, in the time of Nero’s rule. Sienkiewicz did extensive research on the period to get the details right.

About half of the book is about Vinicius’s pursuit of Ligia, first through ruthless means, including kidnapping (presumably pagan patricians have no morals), and later through conversion to Christianity. I was frankly uninterested in either Vinicius or Ligia, who are cardboard characters, and I couldn’t care less about whether they got together.

The last half of the book is about the burning of Rome and the persecution of the Christians. It features the last days of St. Paul.  The pace picks up a little here, but overall the novel is marred by its focus on extolling Christianity. All of the Christians are noble, and most of the other characters are not. Sienkiewicz was a devout Catholic, as is obvious from a few scenes in all his books, and I can only think that the added emphasis on this aspect in this particular novel gets in the way of the book’s effectiveness, at least as viewed by a modern audience.

I know that Quo Vadis was extremely popular in its time (it was published in 1896) and contributed toward Sienkiewicz winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I also know that Sienkiewicz was capable of creating more interesting characters and writing more exciting scenes. Perhaps the times have just changed too much since this book was written for it to appeal to a wide audience now.