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Steven Saylor
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Catalina's Riddle
hardcover
409 pages
Solid thriller, the third in a series of historical mystery novels featuring Gordianus the Finder. Set during ancient Roman times the plot is concerned with several murders occuring after Gordianus has withdrawn from Rome. He is asked to return to investigate the case as a personal favour, but at first he's unwilling to do so. Then more people get killed and he's forced into returning to Rome to investigate the case when things threaten to get personal.

The story is set to occur during the "conspiracy" of Catilina, with the confrontation between Cicero and Catilina seemingly taking most of the attention.

This somewhat muddles the plot making it feel more like a historic novel describing the political situation of the period rather than a thriller.
7/10
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Steven Saylor
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Rubicon
hardcover
272 pages
Gordianus the Finder is now in his sixties, but his two able-bodied sons are not available to perform the task an imperious Pompey has forced upon Gordianus. On his own, he must find the murderer of Pompey's kinsman Numerius.

Not even Davus, the husband of Gordianus' daughter can help because Pompey has illegally conscripted him as hostage-bodyguard.

Gordianus determines to free Davus and for that reason agrees to accompany Tiro, the freedman slave and scribe of Gordianus' former ally Cicero. Tiro has a passport from Pompey that will cover Gordianus in their travels through land loyal to Pompey.

In turn, Gordianus should be able to provide safe passage for Tiro when they are in Caesar's territory because Gordianus' son Meto is a highly placed and possibly too well-loved member of Caesar's forces.

Despite these assurances of safe passage, there are plenty of hazards on the road. As a result, a bodyguard and a driver are sacrificed for the travelers.

Saylor shows both sides in the civil war as ignoble. The soldiers in both armies demean citizens with strip searches. Cicero who has been a lifelong friend of Pompey but is reluctant to pledge his allegiance contrasts with Gordianus who hates both leaders, but cannot decide whether he hates mad Pompey or Caesar the catamite more.

Pleasant read, nothing too taxing, but never boring either.

Recommended
8/10
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Steven Saylor
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A Murder On The Appian Way
paperback
622 pages
A Murder on the Appian Way deals with the death of Publius Clodius Pulcher, a famous populist rabble-rousing politician of the late Roman Republic. There's a lot of foreshadowing of the Republic's fall in this book; especially in the early conversations Gordianus has with his daughter Diana.

The murder of Clodius sparks riots and the burning down of the Senate house. Gordianus is eventually approached by his widow, Fulvia, to investigate what happened and also to check if Marc Antony had anything to do with the murder. He also runs into Clodia again, who also wants to know what happened. However, he doesn't really commit to working for Fulvia, and winds up getting hired instead by Pompey Magnus, usually referred to within the book as "The Great One." Heh.

So Gordianus and his son (along with Gordianus' new slave, Davus), set off to the Appian Way to investigate what happened. I'm not really going to get into the details of the investigation except to say that they eventually wind up being kidnapped, except for Davus, who is left for dead, and that while Milo was ultimately behind it, Cicero knew what had happened and let it happen (though he did convince Milo not to kill them).

To which my reaction was "Whoa. Steven Saylor really hates Cicero!" He had certainly portrayed him as the epitome of the scummy lawyer in past books, with some justification. But I really hadn't thought that his portrayal of him could get any more unsympathetic, but clearly I was wrong. Which is interesting to me, since while Gordianus' and Cicero's relationship had been deteriorating for quite some time now, this really marks the end of good relations between them presumably, and I wonder what means for future books. While I can certainly understand Gordianus' (and probably Saylor's) problems with Cicero's methods, I think ultimately Gordianus and Cicero want the same thing: which is for the Roman Republic to stay a republic. And we all know it's not going to for very long.

A few other items of note: we get introduced to Marcus Antonius for the first time in this book, and I was nerdily disappointed (and somewhat surprised) that Saylor has chosen to call him "Marc Antony." I figured if anyone was going to refer to him by his proper Roman name, it would have been Saylor, as he did so with Catalina after all (who's usually referred to as Cataline). Ah well. Most of the Marc Antony stuff seemed like obvious setup for future novels, including a somewhat shoehorned reference to a young Cleopatra.

We also get a broken Minerva statue being used as a rather obvious metaphor for the broken Republic, complete with a detailed description of how it must have had an internal flaw that was invisible on the outside but that ultimately made it vulnerable enough to get broken where it did. Really, Saylor? That was rather anvilicious of you.

I don't mean to bash this book though; it was pretty good. And I always enjoy Saylor's take on Clodia. He manages to never quite settle the question of whether or not she and her brother were having "improper relations," while at the same time portraying her as a definitely lusty, but ultimately sympathetic character, who in this book was genuinely grieving for her brother. I liked the scene at the end when Gordianus delivers Clodius' ring to her; a nice touch.

Recommended
8/10
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Steven Saylor
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The Triumph Of Caesar
paperback
311 pages
Steven Saylor returns to his Gordianus series and the result, although welcome is something of a disappointment. A somewhat slender and short story offers only transitory pleasures. But Saylor is a master storyteller and sage on all things Roman, so a sub par Roma Sub Rosa novel still eclipses his many rivals. A minor entry in the series and not the best starting point for newcomers, but for completists and fans a must buy.
6/10
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Steven Saylor
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Last Seen in Massilia
paperback
320 pages
Steven Saylor's latest outing with Gordianus The Finder takes Ancient Rome's Philip Marlowe to the besieged city of Massilia (present day Marseilles). This time however Gordianus' mission is personal - to find his son Meto who has been acting as a spy for Julius Caesar (whose forces are besieging the doomed city). Once inside the city Gordianus and his son in law are drawn into the claustrophobic intrigues of a dying city. Although the pace is initially leisurely, Saylor easily draws us into his superbly evoked ancient world and gradually an enthralling mystery tale unwinds.
The characterisation is excellent and at times poignant, the period detail and color is vivid and accurate, the story well plotted - with one or two suprises and twists in the tail!
8/10
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Steven Saylor
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The Seven Wonders
hardcover
321 pages
This addition to the Roma Sub Rosa series is a deviation from the norm in many ways. First, it is a prequel, going back in time to when Gordianus was eighteen and showing the process of the boy becoming the man and Finder returning readers know so well. Second, it purports to be a novel but is much closer to a short story collection. Third, it is a bit of a travelogue, focusing on places over anything else. The execution of each of these three things is largely responsible for how well the book succeeds or fails.

As a prequel, this left me rather underwhelmed. Gordianus is, in many ways, far too advanced in his trade already. We are told at the start that his father, the man currently known in Rome as the Finder, has taught young Gordianus all the tricks of the trade and that is really all the development of his skills we are given. The father disappears from the book entirely after a few short pages. While Gordianus occasionally thinks of his father's lessons as he uses his detective skills, there is no real sense of him being anything other than the professional readers of the series already know. We are told in the end that while he had the skills, he lacked one critical aspect of his adult personality and really of maturity and he has now developed that, but we are told that rather abruptly without it really having been demonstrated previously. The only area in which Gordianus grows and matures throughout these tales is in his sexual awakening and those were fun little moments that amused me but have no heft to them.

As a blend of novel and short story collection, this almost succeeds, but ultimately I was again disappointed. Most of the tales here, seven of ten chapters if my count is correct, were published in various magazines and anthologies as individual short stories before being collected here. As such, each chapter is a contained story with characters, stand alone plot, and completed mystery. The mysteries are necessarily much less complex than those of the full novels in this series, but roughly on par with the previous short story collections. I of course enjoyed some stories more than others and personally prefer the previous collections over this one, but as short stories I have no real complaints with them. The attempt to unite the stories into one novel, however, was much more problematic. There is an overarching plot lingering in the background of the stories, articulated most clearly in the first and last proper chapters (ignoring the epilogue for the moment) which were not previously published as stand alone tales. The problem is that this overarching plot is rather weak and the twist or mystery reveal that comes in the last chapter was obvious to me at most one-third of the way through the book.

The one thing that does successfully unite these stories is the travelogue theme of the collection. Gordianus is traveling the known world, visiting each of the Seven Wonders in turn and encountering a mystery at each place. The physical descriptions of the wonders themselves were a bit flat, but the overall sense of place and time with all the little details that I consider to be one of the hallmarks of Saylor's series are here and as fantastically done as ever. Gordianus's journey gives him and the readers a sense of the culture and history of multiple places around the Mediterranean and the background is as vibrant, entertaining, and educational as Saylor at his best.

Recommended
7/10
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Running Apache