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ancient-Rome

REVIEW:  Search the Seven Hills by Barbara Hambly

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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REVIEW:  Master and God by Lindsey Davis

REVIEW: Master and God by Lindsey Davis

Master-and-God

Gaius Vinius Clodianus is a reluctant Praetorian Guard, with a disastrous marriage history and post-traumatic stress – but he is a hero. Flavia Lucilla has given the imperial ladies a ridiculous hairstyle and makes toupees for the increasingly paranoid emperor – and she is good at her job. A devastating fire in Rome starts their story then a shared apartment brings them together, leading to a lifelong friendship, passion and love.

Together they watch Domitian’s once talented rule unravel into madness and cruelty, until the people closest to the Emperor conspire to delete him from history. As an imperial bodyguard, Gaius then faces an impossible dilemma, where the bloody outcome inevitably threatens his and Lucilla’s hopes of a future together and even their lives.

Dear Ms. Davis,

Lots of chapters here start with – and in some cases are almost all about – history or literature or whatever lessons. Interesting, certainly, but after a few pages it dawns that this is a history lesson and I begin to get a touch antsy for some action. Not necessarily fights or brawls or covert stuff but just any scenes with actual dialogue and movement. I suppose this was your way of using up all the bits and pieces of your years of research into classical Rome that had somehow never made it into one of the Falco books or perhaps only a touch here and there but not all the lovely stuff you’d discovered that was just sitting around on your research heaps just begging to be used more fully. Nonetheless, I did amuse myself by imagining these being told to me in the voice of Stephen Fry. His is almost perfect for dishing amusing tidbits and the salacious gossip of history

Master and God by Lindsey DavisStill some of the information is more interesting to me than – say – the philosophy stuff so some chapters moved faster than others. Choosing the Flavian dynasty to use as your time frame makes sense in that there’s enough going on to make events interesting and enable your characters to do and see interesting things without it being too unsettled a time – such as the year of the four emperors – or during Caligula’s madness so that readers would be constantly worried about people we’d be pissed about if they didn’t make it through.

I see that Seutonius is also a large source of the little details that are so cleverly worked into the story. I once tried to read “The Twelve Caesars” but found it dry going. This is so much more fun and easy to digest.

When I read the description of the book, I imagined that it would be two courtiers who would be the main characters but making the story center on Lucilla and Gaius is genius. They’re close enough to the various centers of action all over the city and even on Domitian’s military trips that their presence never seems forced or out of place. I never once thought, “Now why would he or she be there then? That makes no sense beyond needing it for the plot to work.” Yet they’re not well known historical figures so you can do whatever you want with their private lives. I also like seeing how the little people live in history. The tiny, mundane details of making a living, where to set up housekeeping, what they ate. Which reminds me that I must try some Chicken Frontinian at some point since it’s Gaius’s favorite.

Gaius and Lucilla aren’t perfect people and that sort of endears them to me. Gaius is a mess with the women in his life and indeed goes through five wives before finally coming to his senses about Lucilla and both of them catching each other at the right time in their personal lives. Sort of like Rhett Butler chivvying Scarlett to the altar because he didn’t want to wait to catch her between husbands again. They’re two people who others know are perfect for each other but who refuse to see or act on their feelings for each other until their friends are about ready to knock some sense into them. The first night they spend together after finally acknowledging their love is sweet and poignant and so deeply moving as to almost make me cry it’s so perfect. It takes them a while to get things right but once they do, it’s forever and I have no doubt of it.

Anyone looking for a quick or easy read needs to rethink or move on to something else. This story is like a rich, dense piece of chocolate cake or a hearty lentil stew vs a puffed up slice of angels food or a quick McDinner fast food gobble. At times it is slow going and one must occasionally stop and push back from the table to savor what’s already been consumed before going on but the rewards of learning all about the world of Rome during Domitian and seeing Gaius find his Gaia/Lucilla are well worth the time and effort involved in finishing it. B

~Jayne

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