Sunday, June 20, 2010

War in the Venetian Quarter by Alan Gordon

During the War between the people of Constantinople and the Venetians, Feste is sent by the Emperor to look into the death of a merchant in the Venetian Quarter. Actually, it's not so much the Emperor, but the power behind the throne, the Imperial Treasurer, Philoxenities. The Merchant may have been merely a silk merchant, but Philoxenities feels that his death is significant. Feste, who has been forced into reporting everything that goes on in front of the Emperor to Philoxenities, has no real objection to investigating the death.

Since it is the Venetian Quarter, Feste seeks out the man's fellow merchants and inveighles his way into playing for the funeral party. The merchants are more than a little suspicious, but they do hire Feste to play ballads of their homeland at the funeral.

From the first, Feste does suspect something, but the fellow merchants are close-mouthed, and his wife, Viola, does some investigating of her own. Working together, they are separated partway through the book as Feste leaves the city to investigate what is happening in the Venetian camp of the Crusaders and visit with two other fools of the guild, who add their knowledge to his own.

Fairly early on, Feste discovers that the merchants may appear to be silk merchants, but they are actually smuggling weapons into the city. The question is, why and for whom? Since they aren't offering these weapons to the Emperor, it's very obvious that something shady is going down, but who are the weapons for, and how will they be used?

Feste is forced to do some very fast sidestepping and digging, and ask for the help of one of the criminal guilds in the city to discover just exactly what is going on. But those who know their history of the Venetians helping the Crusaders attack the city of Constantinople know what is going to happen to the city, and in the end, it is brought down by the short-sightedness of the Emperor and the veniality of the people who should have been thinking of the city's defenses. By the time Feste solves the crime, will there be anybody left who cares? And can Feste elude the usual fate of the captured city inhabitants when one is conquered by an overwhelming force?

I enjoyed this book very much. I can very easily get into Alan Gordon's writing style, not having to struggle with it at first like I do some authors. This book picks up where "Jester Leaps In" ended off. The city is under siege, and things are getting progressively worse as the story goes on- parts of the city, like the tower that protects the sea-chain, are conquered and captured by the invaders, and it's very sad, because both Constantinople and Venice are Christian. But Venice wanted complete control of Meditteranean shipping, so as the price of taking the Crusaders to the Holy Land, they asked the "little favor" on conquering the city.

Yes, the Emperor was venal and debased, preferring to spend time with his talented flute player (who seemed to spend more time playing the skin flute- the Emperor admires the strength and dexterity of her lips) rather than anything else. But everyone in the city seems to suffer from shifting alliances except for one person. The Flute Player is in the pay of the Empress *and* the Moslems. Even Feste and Claudia are working for both the Emperor and Empress, respectively, and the guild, while Feste is also reporting to the man who runs the treasury- he's the only one who is sincere in his motives to protect the Emperor and the city.

Once again, Feste and Viola/Claudia work together and on their own to solve the crime, and in the end, it takes both of them to do so. Each knows some of the story, but only when they can tell the story together does the full picture come out. I liked this part. Each is very intelligent, and while they may strive to find out the true story on their own, each contributes a lot to the full picture. Both characters are frighteningly intelligent, but neither triumphs over each other. They are well-matched, both physically and intellectually, and that was quite a relief to read after novels where the protagonist's wife and/or partner exists partly to help him, and partly to constantly get into trouble and have to be rescued. In fact, often it seems that Feste will be the one needing a rescue!

I especially liked the ending of the story and the promise it brings to future volumes. I don't want to give it away, but since I am reading the next volume right now, and the plot will be spoilered there, Viola is pregnant as they leave the city, so Feste has incipent parenthood in the offing. I really loved this book. The relationship between the two characters is wonderful and the atmosphere of the book deeply conveyed the tension of a city preparing itself to be conquered. The plot is twisty and I wasn't sure who really did it until near the end. For all that, I highly recommend the series and the book itself. Very well done.

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