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REVIEW: Search the Seven Hills by Barbara Hambly

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In ancient Rome, a poor philosopher races to rescue his kidnapped lover before she is abused by the sinister Christian cult

The son of a wealthy Roman family, Marcus gave up the prestige and riches that were his birthright to devote himself to philosophy. His noble mind attracted Tullia, a Senator’s daughter whose father wanted her to have nothing to do with the penniless intellectual. The news that she is to marry a prosperous merchant shatters Marcus, who goes to her house, hoping to plead his case, only to see her attacked and abducted by disguised ruffians.

That she was kidnapped is tragedy enough, and it gets worse when he learns who took her: the sinister Christian cult. He knows not what vile rituals they will expose her to, and he does not want to find out. His lover in danger, the philosopher must turn warrior before it is too late.

Dear Ms. Hambly,

Why did I pick this novel to try? 1) It’s written by you 2) It’s written by you and 3) it sounded so very different from your other novels in showing how Romans might have viewed the early Christians. The opinion ain’t pretty with Marcus wavering between being appalled and horrified by them while Praetorian guardsman Arrius likens them to “tomcats in a sack.”

The action is a bit slow to get going and I wasn’t at first assured that I wanted to read about Marcus but as the book progressed, he grew on me. He’s not the typical “hero.” Instead he’s a disappointment to his hidebound, ghastly father – imagine being under that man’s thumb with him having the Roman paterfamilias power of life or death over you, an unknown and possibly disappointing helper to a crusty centurion of the Praetorian guard and the person who gooses a happily retired and reclusive general and former Governor of Antioch out of his overgrown city house garden. Together, the three of them are trying to retrieve Marcus’s childhood playmate who has been kidnapped by renegade Christians right before her wedding to an oily Syrian importer/exporter – and you know how *they* are. Or was she?

Several people have commented on this book and the extraordinary research that is slyly revealed with an almost unnoticed wink and nod. Early Roman views on Christianity? Typical tyrannical Roman father? A basic Roman orgy? A trip through the bowels of the Flavian Amphitheater? A quick and dirty guide to early Christian insults hurled at each other? Gotcha covered on all accounts.

Arrius is a man with a job to do who isn’t going to let anything – or maybe much – stand in his way. If torture is needed, it will be done. His is the cynical, world weary view of a lawman just doing his job who knows he better get it right or the Higher Ups will hear about it.

Sixtus is a fascinating old coot. Beloved by his slaves, almost forgotten by his neighbors he’s a man who’s seen too much and is haunted by much of what he’s done and seen. But he’s also a man of principles with old school honor.

Marcus is a middle son who was trying to make a go of being a philosopher. Now his search for Truth has turned over the cobblestones of Rome and exposed the dirty underside. He’s getting a rough and tumble education in real life and the seamier side of truth that his delicate ideals might not survive.

The plot takes twists and turns up through the Forum and down the narrow, dirty lanes of Subura. There are bath houses and brothels, lions and letches and liars. Lots and lots of liars though the reasons vary from understandable to reprehensible. I wanted to know what had happened to Tullia, who had taken her and why but at the same time, I didn’t want the book to end since I was having such a wonderful time watching all the characters interact, seeing Roman justice and laughing myself silly whenever 2 or more Christians got together and “discussed” theology. It reminded me of the old chestnut, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” If the final chapter is a bit too neat and clean, the nail biting finale the precedes it – and the just desserts ultimately served up to the villain – more than make up for it. B+

~Jayne

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

11 Comments

  1. Carolyne
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 08:52:02

    I love anything Roman and this era in particular, and gobble up anything with lots of details and detailed research to chew on. This one is going straight to the top of my TBRs.

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  2. cleo
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 09:14:54

    I think I own this book! Thanks for the reminder. Pretty sure I bought this on sale for the same reasons you mentioned – it’s written by Barbara Hambly and it sounded interesting. I may have to move it up the tbr pile.

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  3. Jayne
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 09:20:34

    @Carolyne: Michelle Styles has written a number of Harlequin Historicals set in ancient Rome and of course there is the wonderful Marcus Didius Falco mystery series which I really must get back to one of these days.

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  4. Jayne
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 09:26:17

    @cleo: I got it a while ago when I first started reading Hambly’s books – I think the publisher was having some wonderful sale at the time.

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  5. Elizabeth McCoy
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 09:27:58

    Also in iBooks! ( https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/search-the-seven-hills/id424562728?mt=11 ) (My kid pretty much only reads books on her iBooks app now, on her phone. She’s plowing through Terry Pratchett books right now.)

    I loved Search the Seven Hills SO MUCH for its research, and the squabbling. I’m extremely happy it’s available as an ebook, and one of my numerous griefs over the death of my father-in-law — a Latin teacher and mystery buff — is that he never got to read it.

    (Now, if only Hambly’s Star Trek books will get dropped in price by about a buck or two…)

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  6. sandyl
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 09:29:21

    Ruth Downie also has wonderful ancient Rome/Britain mystery series. And Lindsey Davis has a sleuth, Falco’s adopted daughter, Albia.

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  7. Jayne
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 09:32:51

    @sandyl: I’ve seen the Albia books but haven’t tried them due to some iffy reviews. Has anyone read them? Are they Falco quality?

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  8. Barb in Maryland
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 10:17:09

    @Jayne re: Albia books
    I’ve read both of them and quite enjoyed them (I’ve read all of the author’s Falco books). They are slightly different in tone, of course, with having a woman as the lead. Albia is 29, a widow, and very prickly. I love her, but I can see where some wouldn’t.
    Lindsey Davis’ snark is still going strong. If you have enjoyed the Falco books-give the Albia books a try. Falco and Helena and the rest of the extended family make cameo appearances in the new books, but don’t take up a lot of page space.

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  9. AlexaB
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 11:31:33

    This sounds awesome! At the top of the TBR pile.

    It’s also available via Scribd, for anyone who is wading into the seas of digital book subscriptions.

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  10. sandy l
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 15:26:06

    Jayne,
    I would say Albia is definitely a chip off falco block. So are the Ruth Downie books, although not related to Falco by any means. If you like Barbara Hambly, definitely try her Benjamin January series. Although not ancient Rome (1830s New Orleans), they contain her wonderful characterization and in depth research.

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  11. Carolyne
    Aug 12, 2014 @ 10:21:47

    @Jayne: Falco…I love Falco so much. They’re some of the few books I reread regularly. I’ll admit that some are better than others, but I always enjoy spending time bouncing around in his head.

    I’ve been holding off reading THE IDES OF APRIL. I don’t know if I’m ready to move on to the next stage of the family saga; I’ll miss Falco too much. Sniff.

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