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When Edward Gibbon wrote his monumental DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, he dedicated only half, at best, of his pages to the fall and decline of Rome; the rest of his book covered the founding, flourishing, decline, and fall of Constantinople, the New Rome in the East. Located in a far corner of the Mediterranean, where only the narrow Bosporus separates Europe from Asia, the empire seated at Constantinople (a city earlier known as Byzantium, later as Istanbul) has been a focal point of history down to the present age. Yet today the over 1,000 years of the Byzantine Empire remain as unknown to most Americans as if they took place on the far side of the moon.
I'm appreciative of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer's efforts to select one of the most interesting periods in the life of the Byzantine Empire, the Age of Justinian, as the setting for their mystery series featuring John the Eunuch. Constantinople was founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine, but it became more Greek than Roman, albeit a Greek much influenced by Near and Middle Eastern ways. Eunuchs commonly held important positions in the palace; they had been used before by emperors in Rome, but not as extensively. John was the high ranking Lord Chamberlain in Justinian's court, much needed by the emperor for a variety of functions, but, as with other officials, always aware that his life was hanging by a thread. In John's case the thread was already thinning by his having incurred the enmity of Justinian's empress, Theodora. Perhaps in part this was because John was not the usual eunuch, castrated before puberty, but had been a normal man and soldier until he was captured in fighting and castrated to be sold as a slave.
Although John's duties were to supervise the care for the palace, he seemed frequently to come across murders and couldn't resist investigating them, even though Justinian at times warned him to back off. Too much success could lose him his head. John might have been the original confidential investigator, having good reason to want to keep his efforts confidential.
The first of the series, ONE FOR SORROW, if at all possible should be read first (which I did not do). It introduces us to John, his friend the palace guard captain Felix, a younger friend the palace secretary Anatolius, his prosperous brothel keeper friend Isis, his loyal servant Peter, and of course Justinian and Theodora. Although Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to christianity, had made Constantinople a Christian city, 200 years later paganism was far from dead, and many religions co-existed uneasily side by side. John and Felix, for example, worshipped Mithra.
In this first book a knight from faraway England comes to Constantinople seeking the Holy Grail. It was a logical place to look, considering the city's fixation on amassing Christian relics, already, for example, having enough pieces of the True Cross to build a warship. John's friend Leukos is mysteriously murdered, and a famed soothsayer is blamed. Case closed as far as Justinian is concerned, so back off, John. John's former (pre-castration) amour from Crete is in Constantinople along with their daughter, and both are in danger after a young prostitute is also murdered.
John acts as our tour guide in showing us around 6th century A.D. Constantinople. He covers the glorious parts, such as the wonder of the church of Hagia Sophia (still standing) and the Hippodrome (now in ruins, but glorious ruins well worth seeing), and to the bad areas, where a well-dressed member of the court could be murdered just for his clothing. We see bear-baiting, the passion for chariot racing which at times even caused riots among the Blue and Green factions, and everyday life where in some respects people lived not that much differently from us -- get up, go to work, come home, go to a tavern for a drink, look for entertainment, and go to bed.
There's much adventure here, intrigue, and a pulsating struggle at the end. But adventure, intrigue, and pulsating, of course, are constant descriptors of the city of Constantinople. The authors have picked their setting well, even though to accomplish their task they obviously had to study much about the Byzantine Empire. It all seems so simple when it appears spread out in front of us in the pages of this mystery, but a tremendous amount of learning went into the making of it. This is a superb series.
I read the second of the series, TWO FOR JOY, earlier, and found it equally fascinating. The third, THREE FOR A LETTER, is already out, and I plan to buy it, and then hope for still a fourth to come. As incidental intelligence, I enjoy some of the character names in this story, especially in thinking of their English meanings, such as Leukos (White), Zoe (Life), Anatolius (East), and Aoinos (Wineless). I'd never want anyone to call me Aoinos.
Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, July 2002
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