Wrath of the Furies | Steven Saylor | 2016 (3 March) | Constable | 311p | Review copy | Buy the book
For many years, I’ve been an avid reader of Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series of mysteries featuring Gordianus the Finder. They immerse the reader in the Rome of Sulla, Caesar, Cicero and many of the other leading figures of the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC. Wrath of the Furies is a little different. It’s the third novel to go back in time, to take Gordianus back to his twenties, when it was his father who had the reputation of being Gordianus the Finder, and when Gordianus the younger was enjoying his education exploring the wonders of the ancient world while falling ever more hopelessly in love with his slave girl Bethesda.
Wrath of the Furies takes us to 88 BC. Gordianus is in Alexandria, having just completed his tour of the seven wonders of the ancient world in the company of his tutor, the poet Antipator. Egypt is in turmoil, its pharaohs falling victim to the schemes of the great king of the east Mithridates, but that is as nothing compared to the other provinces of Roman Asia. Mithridates and his army are sweeping all before them and the king is set upon destroying every Roman in his path. He is now in Ephesus and, unfortunately, so too is Antipator. Although Antipator is now part of Mithridates’ entourage, he believes his life is in danger. A message is smuggled out to his protege Gordianus and with no hesitation at all, Gordianus (with Bethesda, of course) makes the dangerous trip to Ephesus, disguised as a mute. Should he speak just one word, Gordianus would be revealed as a Roman and the consequences of that in this hostile yet beautiful city do not bear thinking about.
Steven Saylor, as always, does such a fine job of immersing the reader in another time and place. Ephesus is beautifully painted, as is Rhodes with the enormous remnants of its fallen Colossus guiding ships into its harbour. The opulence and danger of Mithridates’ court at Ephesus is hinted at in the extracts from Antipator’s secret diary which can be found scattered throughout the book. The menace to Romans is brought home in the new laws that are found inscribed across Ephesus – Romans must wear togas on pain of immediate death. The proud symbol of Roman citizenship is now a mark of shame. And powerful, well-known Romans swept up in Mithridates’ march are tortured and murdered in the most imaginative of ways. We’re put in no doubt at all of the danger that Gordianus faces in trying to save his old friend, especially when he discovers that there’s only one thing more dangerous than being a Roman in Ephesus right now, and that’s being a mute Roman in Ephesus.
I thoroughly enjoyed the setting of the novel and Gordianus is a fine companion although, I must say, it’s Bethesda who entertains me the most. She is quite a character. But the mystery itself is less satisfying. In fact, it doesn’t seem much of a mystery at all. And the horror of Mithridates’ plans for the Romans – an atrocity that actually did occur – doesn’t shock as it should. The events are recounted but their weight isn’t communicated or felt. These were dark, dark days and the novel is lighter than I expected. My other issue is with Bethesda, lovely though she is. I think I have a problem with young beautiful slave girls beloved by their Roman masters and snogged at every opportunity. Perhaps what I was missing was the strong sense of historical depth and insight that is so apparent in the earlier books that feature an older and wiser Gordianus in a Rome at its most fascinating. Nevertheless, a new Roma Sub Rosa novel is always a longed for event and I jumped on it. Long may they continue.