Fiction: “Roman Blood” by Steven Saylor

roman bloodIn a way, you guys are lucky; I had started writing this review longhand while at the laundromat the other night. The first few paragraphs were full of my epic dryer rant and casting plagues upon the houses of the souls who take up dryers at a laundromat by only putting five pieces of clothing in said dryer (“it makes them dry quicker, there’s more air to move around!”) and then leaving the laundromat to run other errands, thereby holding the dryers hostage until they return. Because look guys, as much as I miss them days, I am not in college anymore, and I am not touching your laundry, regardless of how clean it is — or should be, seeing as how it would be coming out of a dryer. It is your fucking responsibility to take care of your own shit and be goddamned respectful of other people’s time and space, so get the fuck back where you came from or so help me —

Ahem. Sorry. Jean-Paul Sartre wasn’t kidding when he said that Hell was other people.

(I also can’t tell you how hard I struggled to turn that into a pun. Jean-Paul … Saturated Darks? Hell is other peoples’ laundry? I could not come up with anything. My French V AP teacher, scant knowledge of existentialism, and adoration of puns are all shaking their [in some cases anthropomorphic] heads.)

ANYWAY. Book 2 of the Five Book Backlog is Roman Blood by Steven Saylor. Now, I had read this … half? most? of this series back when I was in high school, and sporadically through college. The series takes place in Ancient Rome – as I’m hoping all y’all could have figured out from the thumbnail of the cover up there. This book, the first in the “Roma Sub Rosa” series (as titled by the author) takes place in approximately 80 B.C. Not that the characters know it’s B.C., obviously; that comes later. If you are more up on your Latin history than I am, the events found in this book transpire towards the end of the dictatorship of Sulla, who predates Julius Caesar for about thirty years (?). As such, there will be no salad, ear, et tu, Brute, or George Clooney 1990s-era haircut jokes found in this review. Apologies; apologies all around.

Our narrator is Gordianus the Finder; essentially, ancient Rome’s answer to Philip Marlowe. He gets hired by advocates (ancient Roman lawyers) and orators to discover secrets and facts. He is a citizen of Rome, but he’s not prominent enough to be recognized, so it’s easy for him to seek answers in the seedier parts of Rome.

Although now that I’ve mentioned he’s a citizen, let’s take a time out for some Roman history. You know what all Roman citizens had tons of? Slaves. Everyone who was a citizen had a slave. Gordianus has a slave – Bethesda, a slave he bought in Alexandria. And I’m mentioning this because it might be weird for someone to read this and go, “wait a minute, our narrator and protagonist owns another person!?” But guys, historical context is everything. And the author knows what he’s doing – for years, he was a Classics professor at a prestigious university. The plot itself is not something he divined out of thin air; he adapted it from an oration given by Cicero himself. This book is scarily accurate (I would assume, as I am not a Classics major), so, don’t freak out about the slave thing.

(Although it is weird to read that Bethesda, Gordianus’s only slave, is an attractive woman, and yes, they sleep together. But I would like to point out that it is always consensual, and Gordianus never uses his power as a Citizen over her. In addition, spoiler alert! A few books down the line, he frees her and marries her, so there is genuine affection between them. It’s not as icky as it appears.)

Cicero has taken on the case of Sextus Rosciius the Younger – Sextus Rosciius has been accused of parricide, or arranging to have his father killed. Parricide was one of the worst crimes to be convicted of, and the punishment was barbaric. Cicero is hired by friends of Sextus Rosciius to defend him, and in turn Cicero hires Gordianus to discover who really arranged the murder of Sextus Rosciius the Elder. Gordianus spends most of his time with Cicero’s teenaged slave, Tiro, who is treated by Cicero almost as an intern (if interns were a thing in ancient Rome, and also, aren’t all interns slaves as it is?). Tiro is fascinated by Gordianus’s method and wants to learn all he can. There are moments when Tiro’s personality comes off like an energetic puppy, but those moments are few and far between.

Part of what forms the mystery and atmosphere of the story is the political intrigue of the time. We learn a lot about the different levels of Roman society in this book – in fact, the proscriptions of Sulla’s enemies plays a large part in the plot. But one of the failings of this book – for me, at least – was that at one point, while Gordianus and Tiro are hiding out, eavesdropping on one of Sulla’s lavish parties, the action takes a nosedive while “Gordianus” recounts in narration the tale of Sulla’s uprising. And it is to Mr. Saylor’s credit that this is really the only place his professorial history comes through, but when we the reader are right in the thick of some intrigue, and then the plot takes to the background in order to drop some historical knowledge, it’s … not disjointed, but at least provides a disconnect. It’s as if, if one were watching Agent Carter, right in the middle of the big fight Peggy has with a stealth minion, the action slows down and you hear a narrator tell us about the struggles a working-class single woman had in 1946 as the GIs were returning from the front and the ladies’ jobs were being given to the boys. It’s a disconnect.

I think that’s everything I can say about the book without giving away spoilers. Oh, wait — I do want to mention a couple of things that could trigger people. As the plot develops, Gordianus finds out that events occurred in the past. Some of those events consist of rape, and some of incest. We the reader never experience the events first-hand in the story — they are always recounted to Gordianus, never witnessed by him — but I do want to make readers aware that there will be situations described involving both of those … well, situations, I guess, for lack of a better term.

Overall, I think the plot and the atmosphere is easy to get into, even if you were like me and didn’t take Latin in high school (see above where I mentioned French V AP. I was reading existentialist tracts in the original French, mes chiennes! Although I have picked up a couple of phrases; post hoc, ergo propter hoc and semper ubi sub ubi spring to mind). Gordianus is very personable, with a sense of humor — which is surprising, considering the only historical comic from Rome I’m aware of is the Great Comicus, who was nearly beheaded by Caesar.

As I said above, it’s been a while since I’ve read this series, and I don’t believe I got very far into it. So I’ll probably keep picking these up off my shelf when I’m in the mood; I have all the titles, after all.

Grade for Roman Blood: 3 stars

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