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by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2003
292 pages
ISBN: 1590580311

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Score another winner for the husband-and-wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer with the fourth in the John the Eunuch series. But first let's cut to the criticism. I found an infelicitous sentence: p. 146 of the advance review copy: "Before he could say more a pair of splendidly dressed, longhaired young men, dressed in subdued splendor, emerged from an emporium at the foot of the street." But I know from experience how easy it is for a writer to do this sort of thing. You change the wording but forget to delete some of the changed part. More importantly I found nothing else wrong.

On the contrary, this is the best I've read of the John the Eunuch series, all of which are very good, but in this one, a prequel to the earlier ones, the authors outdid themselves. I found some praiseworthy sentences, too, such as, p. 117, "Then he stuck out his prominent chin and did his best to look down on John and Felix, both of whom towered over him." And, p. 120, "Piles of dirty snow at the foot of the stairs leading to the [Great Church] suggested heavenly clouds tainted by contact with the secular world."

In this novel, we have the historical treat of sixth century Constantinople as a delicious physical setting for the Byzantine machinations of most of its populace. Who's doing what to whom? A prominent businessman-philanthropist, Hypatius, is murdered in Agia Sofia, the "Great Church" with its incredible dome. The Blues, a fanatically unruly faction of chariot-racing fans opposed to the Greens, both of whose riots at times overflow from the Hippodrome into the streets and threaten to topple imperial governments, are suspected of being the villains. But the Blues are favored by Justinian, heir to the crown of his uncle, the once soldierly now feeble Emperor Justin, and by Justinian's paramour, the notorious Theodora, who is hated by many, including patrician senators, the head of the city police, top palace officials, and Justin himself. A number of people believe, or at least want to get others to believe, that Justinian ordered the murder of Hypatius, and they would like to see Justin change his mind about having his nephew succeed him.

Justinian is ill and suspects the city prefect of magic and poison. Justin and others suspect Justinian of feigning. Some of the leading patricians would like to bring back pagan gods. Justin on a whim can cut anyone's head off, and sometimes does. Lady Anna, a senator's daughter, has an unhealthy attraction to her eunuch slave tutor, John (this prequel shows John before he rose to become the Emperor's Lord Chamberlain. Trenico, a supposed rich man suffering financial reverses, wants to marry Lady Anna and her father's money, and he is determined to ruin John one way or another.

Justinian from his sick bed summons John and a new excubitor (palace guard), Felix, and assigns them to act as investigators to find the real murderer of Hypatius. This is a job hardly suitable for a slave, but Justinian knows that John is highly intelligent and resourceful. Felix at first resents having a slave for a partner, but later grows to appreciate him (and becomes one of John's best friends in other books of the series). We also see here the beginning of the animosity the ever-more-powerful Theodora feels toward John, a dislike that in the other books so often threatens his life.

Aside from being a clever plot about plotters, the novel is also constructed along classical mystery lines: a murder, an investigator (or two), opposition, red herrings, misunderstandings, danger, chases, and the denouement. As we follow John and Felix on their quest throughout the city, we see Constantinople in its splendor (if I may use the word) and squalor. We meet suspects who continually lie and point their fingers at others. We find other people getting murdered, and we feel the powerful forces working against the detecting duo. We also begin to understand the social stratification of this great city of Constantinople, where no one lives in perfect safety, not even the emperor.

This is a fast moving story that should delight the history lover and the classical mystery fan alike. It shows another facet of what the historical novel can accomplish. I hope the authors give us many more of these wonderfully staged mystery dramas featuring both John the Eunuch and the ancient city of Constantinople.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, December 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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