Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor

At the end of Steven Saylor's last novel, a Mist of Prophecies, it seemed that that volume would be the last Gordianus the Finder novel. After his wife, Bethesda, became deathly ill, Gordianus had taken her home to Egypt to find curing for her at the Egyptian temples. But she died, and Gordianus stripped and walked into the Nile, apparently intending to join her in death, and found her standing on the riverbank after inhaling a great deal of water.

According to the new book, Bethesda was somehow saved or reborn, and saved Gordianus from death in the river. They, and their family, have returned to Rome, where Gordianus is now retired from active investigation and living with his family around him. His job as a finder has been taken up by his second (adopted) son, Eco (his first, also adopted, son Meto has joined the army and is serving with Caesar's troops in Spain).

But Gordianus is summoned by Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, on a mission of the utmost urgency: she believes Caesar's life is in danger, and her haruspice, Porsenna, tells her that Gordianus is the only man who can untangle the truth. Gordianus is dismissive, as Haruspicy is considered by most Romans to be nonsense, but Calpurnia says he is not the first man to investigate the problem, and the first is dead. When she shows Gordianus the body, it turns out to be Hieronymus, the former scapegoat of Massillia. Apparently, he thought the job of "finder" wasn't that hard and volunteered for the job, but something he found during the investigation got him killed.

Calpurnia says that if Gordianus had any feelings for his former houseguest and friend, he would at least investigate Hieronymus' death. Gordianus agrees, but tells her he is doing it for Hieronymus, not her, and will therefore be keeping his findings to himself, unless he discovers something that indicates that Caesar truly is in danger, in which case, he will inform Calpurnia. She reluctantly agrees.

Gordianus' first stop is Hieronymus' lodgings, in which he discovers the man's notes hidden in a scroll he took from Gordianus' home. In it, he lays out, in a cryptic fashion, what he had discovered so far, and this is more than the reports he gave to Calpurnia. Obviously, he hoped to hold out for more money from his patroness, but now Gordianus must cover the same ground and talk to the same people, ostensibly about the death of Hieronymus, while pumping them for information about Caesar.

Gordianus visits Mark Antony and his lover, who are living in a villa formerly owned by Pompey. Antony is upset that Caesar isn't allowing him to ride in second place in one of his triumphs, and to assuage his hurt feelings, has been throwing parties every night and giving away Pompey's wealth and goods to the participants. But while there are certainly hurt feelings on Antony's part, Gordianus feels that Antony still has respect for Caesar and is unlikely to plot against him.

Calpurnia also gets Gordianus in to see two political prisoners who are due to be slain during Caesar's triumphs, who Hieronymus also spoke to. The first being Vercingetorix, the Gaul whom Caesar captured, and the second being Cleopatra's sister, Arsinoe. They know nothing about a plot against Caesar, and in Caesar's triumphs, Vercingetorix is killed, but Arsinoe is spared, by the wishes of the crowd when Gordianus' son, Rupa, bows before her and kisses her foot.

One of the final events before the end of Caesar's triumph is the installation of Cleopatra's statue in the chapel of Venus, and the anointing of Caesar by Calpurnia's uncle. But when Gordianus finally unravels Hieronymus' last clue, he will have to save Caesar from an enemy close to home, one that he never would have expected...

I found this novel to be a surprise after the events of the last Gordianus book. The circumstances behind the resurrection of Gordianus and his Egyptian wife, Bethesda, are strange and never discussed, or dismissed when he is asked about them. It almost seems like Steven Saylor decided to kill off his characters, then pulled back from actually doing it at the last minute. Very strange.

In any case, I did enjoy the book. This is truly vintage Gordianus, although his character has slowed (physically) and mellowed somewhat with age. It even shows, through the death of the character of Hieronymus, that the job Gordianus does isn't as easy as it looks. The people of Rome remain the same, with all the hidden jealousies and faults humanity is always prey to. Gordianus remains a dogged investigator, and is still able to sift truth from falsehood, to see past people's words to their hearts, and find the culprit, though it may not be until the very last minute that the plot is foiled.

In this case, the book also plays with our knowledge of the life of Julius Caesar, letting us expect him to die, when in actuality, it takes place a year beforehand. It does ramp up the tension, of course, even as we wonder if Gordianus can change history... then it plays with our perception of time, as Gordianus apparently has a mere six days to uncover the plot.

Anyone who enjoys history, Rome, Historical myateries or even the person of Julius Caesar will want to read this enjoyable book. It even sets up the (historical) marriage of Mark Antony to his middle-class wife Fulvia, whom he later leaves for Cleopatra. Well done and I cannot recommend this highly enough.

1 comment:

Durham Bull Pen said...

I've almost finished reading this one. I've read the whole series, plus Saylor's "A Twist at the End" about a series of murders in Austin Texas in the 1880s.

I'm a big fan of his work.