As we will soon realize with the coming of the mega-event— the Star Wars reboot at Christmas, it is very difficult to pull off a prequel successfully when it comes to putting real tension into the story line. Why? Because you already know what happens to the protagonists in the story when it comes to living and dying. Obviously, they live, because there are a variety of adventures already chronicled from later in the person or person’s lives. So there has to be other ways to put tension into the tale, which in this case involves the young Gordianus in about 88 B.C. trying to rescue his old mentor Antipator of Sidon, the world’s greatest poet, from the clutches of mad Mithridates who is on a mission to slaughter a myriad of Romans who live in Asia Minor.
Unlike the Seven Wonders novel which is the predecessor to this novel, what we do not really have is a travelogue adventure. The novel is set primarily in Ephesus after Mithridates has take control of the region, though we start in Alexandria, and have a brief stop in Rhodes as Gordianus and his slave travel to Ephesus to rescue a friend. There is a further problem in the way of creating tension in this tale, namely that it is based on a famous or infamous series of events that did indeed happen in the first century B.C. involving catastrophic loss of life. This story involves a Roman nightmare that Rome would rather have forgotten. Those of us who know Roman history, know how that tale in Ephesus ends. So how does Saylor make this novel both interesting and suspenseful? In several ways.
Firstly, for those of us who care about Gordianus and his Bethesda it is intriguing to watch that relationship blossom into a real love relationship. Even if there weren’t other interesting aspects to this 311 page novel that came out one month ago, it is nice to see the progress of love. Secondly, even if one knows in general about the disaster in Ephesus, there are lots of particulars that will not be familiar, and when one interjects the fictional characters Antipater and Gordianus into the mix, there are plenty enough unknowns to make the story suspenseful.
These are some mean sisters, and frankly, our Gordianus,as well as others of his contemporaries, believe in them and fear them. They are not to be messed with, and they appear to play a role in the climax of the story. In some ways this novel is more of a history than a mystery tale. It involves Saylor’s usual very readable style and interesting plot devices. In this novel, for example, we have a secret diary of Antipater that is shared gradually throughout the entire novel, giving one an inside view of what it was like to live in fear of Mithridates, while being a part of the royal retinue. I enjoyed this novel, but it did not produce the same delight and sense of mystery and intrigue as the novels from later in Gordianus’ life. Still, it is good to know more about the young man, even if he is not yet the clever sleuth of the later novels.