Sunday, June 20, 2010

Jester Leaps In by Alan Gordon

Feste the Jester, more commonly known as Theophilus, is still in Orsino, recovering from the injuries that he took in the course of solving the mystery in the last book. Now mostly recovered, he leaves the town with his new apprentice and wife, Viola.

But not to return to the Fool's Guild. Instead, he and his new wife have another mission from the Fool's Guild. A new Crusade is being launched from Venice and means to stop in Byzantium/Constantinople first to place a new Emperor on the throne. But there is trouble in Constantinople. The entire population of the Fool's Guild there has mysteriously disappeared, except for one fool who lairs in the Colliseum. Feste is to take Viola and go to rebuild the Fool's Guild there and find out what happened to the other Fools- and to bring their murderers to justice, if possible. But he has another reason for wanting to go there, for he once shared a relationship with a female fool of the city's guild, but he was forced to leave her with a mere note of explanation.

But the situation in Constantinople isn't quite tenable. It, too, is under attack by the Moslems, and it feels quite secure behind what it feels are unbreakable walls, and with a harbor chain that protects it from attack by sea. But the army is nonexistent, the fleet has been sold off by the man in charge of it, and to get anything done requires the will of the Emperor- a man who is so dedicated to his pleasures that he rarely seems to spend time on anything else.

Getting to the city is bad enough, but to be able to save the Emperor, they must be able to get into his presence, which means going to the Colliseum and being so good that they attract his attention as they perform. And to get into the Colliseum requires more than a piece of gold, which also means that they must be good enough to raise the money on the streets of Byzantium.

So, even as Feste and Viola play for the crowds and investigate the deaths of the other Fools- they discover that most of them are quite definitely dead, and that the reason they were killed might have to do with the fact that Zintziphides, the only fool seemingly left alive after the massacre, heard someone plotting to kill the Emperor- a male voice, but who could it be?

As Feste strives his best to rebuild the Fools Guild in Constantinople, he becomes Personal Fool to the Emperor- and is thus witness to the stories behind the war. With Fools on both sides of the conflict, Feste must do his best to ensure that, if the Emperor *is* overthrown, that those responsible are brought to justice, and that whoever was responsible for killing the members of the Fools Guild is also brought to justice. But can Theophilus do all that amidst a city at war?

The second story of Feste, the Fool, also known as Theophulis, takes him and his new wife to Constantinople, about to be trampled by the armies of the Crusade, this time paid by the Venetians, who want no competition in their dominance of the Mediterranean and its shipping. Constantinople is no longer as strong as it was, and the fleet has been sold out from under the city by the man who should have been in charge of it.

This book is notable for both the amusing characters and for the "fight" that Feste and Viola have in front of the Emperor and his wife. The Jesting argument they have really made me laugh, which is quite unusual for a book- usually, I am only moved to a smile, at best. And it also came as a relief from the tension building in the rest of the book.

This book certainly kept my attention, with the numerous story threads, and the skillful way they were woven into a whole. It wasn't too long before I was personally invested in the story, wanting Theophilus, Viola, and the other fools to succeed in their tasks and survive the siege and taking of Constantinople. Each step plays out in brilliant color as Feste risks his life, time and again, to get word to the Fools outside the city, and then to return.

To say this is a good story is actually understating how good and interesting this book is. This is one of a very few mystery writers who kept me in the dark as to what was really going on with the murders until near the very end. Well done, amusing, and highly recommended.

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