To be honest, until I picked up this book, I had paid zero attention to best-selling author Steven Saylor’s long-running Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries set in ancient times, in the Roman Empire. The hero in that series’ 10 novels and two short story collections is Gordianus the Finder, Rome’s most sought-after investigator.
I’ve never been keen on stories (or movies) where people run around in togas and sandals, swear upon assorted gods and goddesses, and kill each other with swords or poisons.
Also, my notion of private detectives has tended to go back only as far as Sherlock Holmes. I’ve mainly been a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer kind of guy. You know, fists and firearms, not swords and sandals.
The Seven Wonders, the new “prequel” to the Roma Sub Rosa series, has, however, just expanded my horizon quite a bit. Saylor has created a mystery- and adventure-packed tale that introduces Gordianus as a young man, before he has assumed the mantle of “The Finder” from his father.
The tale is set in 92 B.C., a time when the Roman Empire still dominates Greece. But rumors of war are afoot (literally), spies are everywhere, and even the most seemingly trustworthy friend cannot really be trusted amid all of the anti-Roman political intrigue.
It is also the year when Gordianus has reached – and at last crossed – the dividing line between childhood and getting to wear the “manly toga” of an adult. He’s now ready to leave home – Rome – and have some adventures.
He soon gets much more than he expects as he travels with his tutor and travel guide, the aging Antipater of Sidon, “one of the most celebrated poets in the world, famed not only for the elegance of his verses but for the almost magical way he could produce them impromptu, as if drawn from the aether.”
A real figure in history, Antipater has been given at least some of the credit for coming up with the famous list of the Seven Wonders of the World.
In the novel, the poet leaves Rome under mysterious circumstances but takes Gordianus along as he revisits each of the Seven Wonders. He carefully tutors the young Roman, yet things quickly and repeatedly go awry. At their first stop, for example, the Greeks’ wondrous Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, a young girl drops dead unexpectedly during a major celebration. And Gordianus stealthily investigates, using skills learned from his father, a man who “called himself Finder, because men hired him to find the truth.”
The Finder’s son soon determines that the young girl was murdered. Meanwhile, another young girl has been blamed and will die if Gordianus can’t solve his first case fast enough. He succeeds in a clever way, kills his first bad guy, and also has his first sexual encounter, thanks to the sensuous generosity of a beautiful slave woman who has helped him trap the murderer.
There are then six more Wonders to see, and at each stop, Saylor provides the reader with mysteries rich in history, legend, danger, plot twists and engrossing entertainment as the youthful Gordianus struggles to puzzle them out.
Steven Saylor, who lives in Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas, is a rare kind of writer, one who deftly blends scholarly detail with fast-paced fiction and makes dead worlds seem to come alive again.
I’m now a Spenser/Marlowe/Hammer/Gordianus kind of guy when it comes to detective fiction. And, thanks to this clever prequel, I’m ready to stop ignoring and start reading the Roma Sub Rosa series.
– Si Dunn is a novelist, screenwriter, freelance book reviewer, and former software technical writer and software/hardware QA test specialist. He also is a former newspaper and magazine photojournalist. His latest book is Dark Signals, a Vietnam War memoir. He is the author of an e-book detective novel, Erwin’s Law, now also available in paperback, plus a novella, Jump, and several other books and short stories.