Sunday, August 22, 2010

Murder in Ancient Rome

In the debut novel Roman Games by Bruce Macbain, Pliny the Younger, a somewhat straitlaced Senator and expert probate lawyer, is ordered by the Emperor Domitian (the last of the Flavian dynasty and the nemesis of Lindsey Davis's detective Falco) to solve a locked-door murder of a hated informer. While making his bumbling way toward discovering the culprit and how the deed was accomplished, he uncovers a lot more going on than he really wants to know.

Roman Games is well-written with a good plot and well-developed, multi-layered characters and contains no anachronisms of which I was aware. It falls somewhere between Roberts's SPQR mysteries and Saylor's Gordianus series in terms of seriousness and well-researched historical detail. I haven't read a lot about the reign of Domitian, so Roman Games was interesting for that reason too.

I found the protagonist Pliny to be a bit tiresome, what with his seemingly unrelenting naivete, his slight pomposity and an insufferably proper attitude, though he was certainly a decent man.  I also found him a bit unlikeable (for one thing, he treated his pregnant wife of FOURTEEN like, well, a child ~ a lovable one but a child nonetheless, and a slightly stupid one at that), and I feel that he didn't do much in the way of growing during the course of the novel, but it wasn't enough to put me off reading it or looking forward to the next installment (I'm sure this is the beginning of a series). Certainly, idealistic honorable courageous men who stood up to the imperial bullies were at a premium in those days, and from what history I've read of the time it wasn't unusual for women to marry young and be treated like children or halfwits. Still, I hope as the series advances, so too will Pliny. And his child bride.

The subject matter was darker and the action more brutal than any of the other Roman mysteries I recall reading recently and, thus, more realistically portrays life in those dangerous days, but I didn't find it outrageous or prurient in any way.  Lots of swearing, especially by the soldiers, but quite a bit of it was, if you'll credit it, in Latin.  I enjoyed those parts a lot.  Many of the characters were historical personages, including Pliny, and much of the action was based on first-person accounts by Pliny and others.

In any event, as an aficianado of ancient Roman mystery/detective series, I'm excited to have another Roman detective to follow and highly recommend Roman Games to anyone who enjoys the Falco, Gordianus, Corvinus or SPQR mysteries.

For more plot information, here's the blurb from the NetGalley website:
"Rome: September, 96 AD. When the body of Sextus Verpa, a notorious senatorial informer and libertine, is found stabbed to death in his bedroom, his slaves are suspected.
"Pliny is ordered by the emperor Domitian to investigate. However, the Ludi Romani, the Roman Games, have just begun and for the next fifteen days the law courts are in recess. If Pliny can't identify the murderer in that time, Verpa's entire slave household will be burned alive in the arena.
"Pliny, a very respectable young senator and lawyer, teams up with Martial, a starving author of bawdy verses and denizen of the Roman demimonde. Pooling their respective talents, they unravel a plot that involves Jewish and Christian 'atheists,' exotic Egyptian cultists, and a missing horoscope that forecasts the emperor's death.
"Their investigation leads them into the heart of the palace, where no one is safe from the paranoid emperor. As the deadline approaches, Pliny struggles with the painful dilemma of a good man who is forced to serve a brutal regime—a situation familiar in our own age as well.
"The novel provides an intimate glimpse into the palaces and tenements, bedrooms and brothels of imperial Rome's most opulent and decadent age."
DISCLAIMER: I received this free unproofed eGalley, sent to my Kindle by the publisher with no strings attached, through The opinions in the review are my own, and I am being paid nothing for my review. Please note that parts of the story may change between now and publication date. The novel is due for release in October 2010.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Black Hills by Dan Simmons

I've heard that some people weren't enamoured of this novel by the author of Drood and The Terror, but, aside from a few annoying parts *cough*Custer*cough*, I enjoyed the audiobook a lot. I especially liked the reader ~ loved the way he read the Native American words in such a wonderful voice (I have no idea whether the pronunciations were correct or not, though I would imagine he must have done some research on it) ~ as well as the story of Paha Sapa's life story told in his own words and the last couple of chapters of the book.  I liked Simmons' writing style, too.

For those who haven't yet heard, Black Hills is a novel about a Lakota (Sioux)  named Paha Sapa, whose name translates as Black Hills. Paha Sapa learns at a very early age that he has certain gifts, but they are so strange he tells only his grandfather.  One of these gifts is the ability to see into the future as well as back to the past, and to have out-of-body experiences where his spirit flies high above the earth.  When Paha Sapa is ten years old, he sneaks onto the battlefield at Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) to count coup (touch the dead bodies of enemy soldiers). He happens to touch the body of Longhair (Custer) at the moment of his death, and, in that fateful moment, Custer's ghost enters Paha Sapa and remains in his head for pretty much his entire life. (Sounds a bit farfetched, I know, but it works in the story.)

The main plot centers around the building of the Mount Rushmore memorial, which is being carved into The Six Grandfathers, a mountain sacred to the Lakotas. Paha Sapa is helping to create the monument, working as a "powderman" and blasting huge chunks from the mountain to form the giant faces. His work on the monument is particularly interesting because the building of Mt. Rushmore monument was shown by The Six Grandfathers themselves to Paha Sapa as a vision, along with other incredible and disturbing future events, in his coming-of-age vision-quest.

Subplots include Paha Sapa's mystical coming of age as a Lakota visionary and the demise of the Free People, his time as an actor in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at the White City (Chicago's World's Fair), the particularly poignant saga of his family life. Running beneath it all is the story of America's manifest destiny-westward growth through the early twentieth century.

I guess many readers loathed the voice of Custer, and, while I admit I found it irritating, I believe it was necessary to the story and for what Simmons was trying to do ~ which I think was at least partly to show the differences and similarities of the Americans and the Lakotas.  Paha Sapa himself was a study in dichotomy. For example, he was Lakota to his soul and despised the treacherous Crow for treating with the white man, yet he himself did things to help the white man that appeared diametrically opposed to the well-being of the Lakota Nation. 

There was a lot of jumping around in time, which I've heard from some was off-putting, at least at the beginning of the novel.  I think it must have been easier to comprehend on audio than it would have been in print, since I never had any problem knowing where I was in time.  Although I listened to most of the book on my iPod, somehow I forgot to load the last CD and so had to read the last bit in print form. While it's true I missed listening the reader pronounce the Native American words, I otherwise enjoyed it just as much in print as as an audiobook.

I'm not sure whether Black Hills is going to be a best-seller or win any prizes, but I thought it was pretty wonderful.  I have been unable to stop thinking about it from pretty much the first CD and, after I finished it just last night, I dreamed about it. To me, that is the sign of a good read.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

What Remains of Heaven, a St. Cyr historical mystery

Just a quick review of What Remains of Heaven by C. S. Harris.  I just love the St. Cyr mysteries, especially now that fiesty, independent, and intelligent Hero Jarvis, the daughter of Lord
Charles Jarvis, Sebastian St. Cyr, Vicount Devlin's archenemy, has a more prominent role. She's so much more interesting than Kat Bolyn.

Anyway, in this one, the fifth of the series, Devlin's Aunt Henrietta ~ the only member of his family who has never let him down and who has shown him unconditional love (though she doesn't hesitate to flay him with her tongue when he needs it) ~ talks a reluctant Devlin into investigating the murder of the Bishop of London, who was found in a recently reopened crypt with his head bashed in, lying beside the body of someone who had been stabbed to death some 30 years earllier. While on the case, Devlin discovers yet another of his father's lies ~ this one the most explosive of all yet one that explains a lot of odd things about his family history and about Devlin himself that were heretofore incomprehensible.

I love Harris's writing, and her historical research and use of period details is impeccable.  The mysteries are good, but the thing I like best about the novels is the character development.

Thanks to NetGalley, I've got the unproofed galley of the next in the series on my Kindle and plan to read it while on vacation.  I'm working really hard to wait until I get to the airport tomorrow before starting on it.  :)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Blood & Gore Galore!

I finished listening to the audio version of Blood Trail by C.J. Box last night.  Talk about a wild thrill ride!  It was my first Joe Pickett, and I had no idea what I was getting into, though many people over at seem to really like C.J. Box. 

Joe Pickett is a former game warden and now a special agent reporting directly to the governor of Wyoming.  In this book (which is somewhere in the middle of the series, I think), someone is targeting elk hunters, and Pickett must find the murderer before more hunters are killed and gruesomely turned into trophies while at the same time dealing with a flamboyant anti-hunting activist who comes to town to capitalize on the uproar over the murders.

The parts of the mystery I enjoyed the most were when the murderous hunter spoke, describing the hunt, the wildlife, the landscape, the prey, and the justification for the murders.  It was like I was there, seeing, feeling, smelling what the hunter saw, felt, smelled. 

I think I'd have gotten more out of the novel had I read the series from the first, but, even without knowing all the backstory, I enjoyed Blood Trail.  I wasn't thrilled with the reader, David Chandler, but I was able to get used to it.  I did enjoy his voice when he read the chilling words of the murderous hunter.  The other voices were sometimes a bit annoying.