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by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
Poisoned Pen Press, December 2001
242 pages
ISBN: 1890208825

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This is the third in Mary Reed and John Mayer's series about John the Eunuch, Lord Chamberlain of the court of Emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire in the 6th century, A.D. I recently reviewed out of turn the fourth and latest in the series, FOUR FOR A BOY (highly recommended). As usual the authors turn out a good historical novel with an exciting plot and authentically interesting historical details. Justinian wants to restore the Eastern Roman Empire's control over Italy militarily via a campaign by his famous general Belisarius and politically by placing 8-year-old twin heirs on the Ostrogoth throne. Justinian and his wife Theodora keep their Ostrogoth hostage-guests at a villa outside Constantinople owned by the elderly eccentria Zeno.

Zeno employs an Egyptian maker of automata, Hero, to concoct various mechanical contrivances for him that seem far in advance of his century, although such automata are in fact found in contemporary history. One such contrivance is a life-sized whale that is demonstrated to Zeno's guests, including John and Empress Theodora, who has never looked kindly on John and continually seems to threaten his life. The demonstration is ruined when the boy hostage-guest, Gadaric, is found murdered inside the whale. Theodora uses the occasion to order John to solve this crime, or else. In his subsequent investigation he is aided by his friends who appear in all these books, Guard Captain Felix, and Justinian's secretary, Anatolius.

General Belisarius is mentioned frequently in the story, but does not appear in person, being away leading the Byzantine army in Italy. Perhaps some future novel might pair John and Belisarius, an amazingly interesting man, who in real life was one of the world's greatest generals. Robert Graves gives an excellent picture of this general in his book, BELISARIUS, which is every bit as thrilling as Grave's more famous books, I, CLAUDIUS and CLAUDIUS THE GOD.

One of the most interesting characterizations in THREE FOR A LETTER is the young royal heir, the surviving twin Sunilda. A precocious child, wise beyond her years, Sunilda could be a model for Lewis Carroll's Red Queen in the Alice stories. Eager for her future reign as a queen, Sunilda makes ample use of royal incentives to get her way, such as reminding her inferiors, including John, that heads are very easily separated from their bodies. Typically, she tells one officious prelate, "When I am queen, you will not be returning to Italy with me, Godomar. And while everyone seems to think I'm in danger, I can assure you, there are many here in much greater danger."

The cast of characters includes some of Theodora's ladies-in-waiting, who keep their eyes on Sunilda, and some people who are mysteriously missing, such as Castor, the bookish owner of the estate adjacent to Zeno's, and Barnabas, a dwarf mime, who disappears immediately after the murder of Gadaric is discovered. Another murder occurs when Castor's servant Briarus is asphyxiated via fire. And then Sunilda disappears. Theodora is not amused, and she lets John know about it. John, however, is able to placate or frustrate Theodora, as when he tells her ambiguously, "No punishment would be sufficient for my neglect of my duty."

The book is full of the twists and unexpected turns that we associate with the word "byzantine." The plotting is intricate, the characters well depicted, and the setting delightful. Although Constantinople is at the heart of each book, by varying the settings as well as the characters, the authors always manage to keep these stories fresh, and in each book we learn new fascinating facets of that most interesting of ancient cities, Constantinople.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, November 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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