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by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
Poisoned Pen Press, June 1999
292 pages
ISBN: 1890208426

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 6th century BC. Justinian and his consort, Theodora, rules the nominally Christian Byzantine Empire. John the Eunuch is Chamberlain to His Imperial Majesty, having worked his way up from slavery.

John was once a soldier, but he had been captured and mutilated, and now, although entitled to great wealth and luxury, still lives like a soldier with only an elderly manservant, in a sparsely furnished house near the Emperor's palace.

It is May and the games celebrating the founding of the modern city are in full swing. Leukos, the Keeper of the Plate, John's friend, indicates that he wants to speak with John but he is killed before they can meet.

The city is a place where religious relics come home to roost. A great cathedral, the Hagia Sophia (still standing today) is being built to house these Christian mementos. Thomas, a knight from England, sent by King Arthur on a quest for the Holy Grail, had been to see Leukos before his murder. Now he asks John to get him an introduction to the Patriarch, John tries to follow Leukos' ultimate trail, and finds that he visited Ahasuerus, an ancient soothsayer, and the house of Isis, an Egyptian brothel keeper before his death. Then one of Isis' girls is murdered. She too had visited Ahasuerus. John wonders if the trail will lead to the Palace, where Theodora had the soothsayer as entertainment for one of her parties..

The sense of the ancient city is brilliantly brought to life by the authors. We see and smell the fetid alleys and the crowded tenements, as well as the perfumed palace and treacherous grounds. Christianity has driven most other religions underground, but that does not obliterate them. There is a description of one of the Mithraic rites. (John is a follower of Mithra. He had been a soldier and this is a soldier's religion)

Most other crime novels set in the ancient world are set in Rome or Egypt. No others are set in the post- Hellenistic, middle Eastern world of Byzantium. This book is a great place to start learning. There are two others available and the 4th will be out next year. Don't wait.

Reviewed by Barbara Franchi, August 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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