Orion | 2019 (7 March) | 376p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 443 BC and Athens is at peace after decades of war with Persia. The city is being rebuilt in marble and its wealth is matched by its culture, which flourishes. Athens is also in a good mood. The Dionysia festival is shortly to begin which means five days of holidays as actors and singers compete in the city’s beautiful theatre to win glory for their patrons. The playwright Philocles is trying to focus on the job in hand, which is to win the comedy prize for the wealthy and powerful Aristarchos. It’s a stressful business, making sure that actors are prepared, with costumes and masks delivered, while fighting off the insults of rivals and appeasing the gods with frequent rituals.
The last thing Philocles expects is to find a man with his throat cut outside his front gate. His valuables, including a fine pair of boots, are untouched so this was no robbery. Philocles soon learns that the murdered man had been seeking him out, that the crime is part of something much bigger with significance for Athens. Philocles finds himself becoming the reluctant detective, working for Aristarchos to discover the truth. And he still has that play to present…
Shadows of Athens is the debut novel by J.M. Alvey and is, I suspect, the start of a new series of historical murder mysteries set in the relatively unfamiliar territory (compared to Rome) of ancient Athens. The historical setting is marvellous and the novel really succeeds in depicting a place and time that actually feels, at least to me, almost unknowable. It is so different, despite the patterns of human behaviour that repeat themselves, whatever the period of history, sometimes leading to murder.
The festival of Dionysus dominates Shadows of Athens and it is fascinating, as people travel from all over the Hellenistic world to enjoy the cultural displays. And yet it’s not that straightforward. Athens and its dominions are at peace but it comes at quite a financial cost. Dependent states and cities pay vast contributions to Athens to keep them safe when, for all the world, it looks as if this money is being turned into marble temples. There’s a rumbling of discontent and this adds another layer to the novel.
And then there’s the social history element of the book, which I found particularly strong. Philocles is in a relationship with a woman he loves but is most definitely not acceptable at his family’s dinner table. This is a world dominated by its social codes and religious rituals, challenges to these aren’t acceptable. And so women, foreigners (even people from the next city along the coast), and slaves do not enjoy the same privileges as the male citizens of Athens. Philocles’ household, though, shows a slightly different reality. He has a slave but this man is almost a member of his family, he fought alongside Philocles’ brothers in war. Philocles’ partner is a foreign woman, her skin is dark, she doesn’t hide it from the sun as Athenian women do. She stands out. It’s so interesting seeing the contrast between Philocles’ family and those of his brothers and his patron. Although the slaves in Aristarchos’ household play a similarly ambiguous role. Every male citizen is aware, though, that in order for a slave’s testimony in court to be permissible that slave must first be tortured. That’s the law but it’s not necessarily what one would ever want to happen.
The role of outsiders in Athens is a central theme of the novel. Despite the displays of civilisation, sophistication and culture, we’re made well aware that this is founded on success in war. Military triumph is equated with moral virtue and divine favour. This attitude is very hard for outsiders to come up against. Athenian citizens might be cultured and athletic but they’re also trained killing machines. This undercurrent of violence, which can be expressed in riot or murder, lurks in shadows throughout the novel. Philocles gets a battering more than once.
As we move around the glorious streets of Athens, there is so much to enjoy in this rich and vibrant depiction of ancient Athens and its festivals. This is fine worldbuilding and I think that the murder mystery itself is rather overshadowed by its setting. I also found it a little difficult to keep track of individuals through the pages. However, I liked Philocles and his household very much and I really enjoyed the scenes where we follow him in his day job as dramatist. There is a sense that Shadows of Athens lays the ground for future books and it does that job very well. I look forward to seeing Philocles again.
I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, please do take a look at the poster below.