Sunday, March 6, 2011

Temple of the Muses by John Maddox Roberts

While reading Temple of the Muses, the fourth installment of John Maddox Roberts’ ancient Rome series featuring Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, I did something I don’t usually do. I laughed out loud many times. The young Decius is getting older, maturing and so is his sense of humor. His comments and thoughts are becoming less juvenile, getting snarkier, more direct and downright smartass. And he is getting smarter.

However, he is still an embarrassment to his family in Rome so they have exiled him to Alexandria, Egypt. Away from the danger in Italy, Decius finds the grand Egyptian city too well-planned, flatter and considerably more hedonistic (if possible) than Rome.

As Roberts describes the ancient city, I thought that I had just been there. I realized I was thinking of Elizabeth Peters’ series featuring archaeologist and sleuth Amelia Peabody. But here, Alexandria is portrayed as it was during its hey-day. Decius has no shortage of distractions to keep him from getting homesick. The drinking and partying of the Egyptians under the reign of Ptolemy surpasses that of Rome. Yet he is excited when he learns that his betrothed Julia, niece of Gaius Julius Caesar has arrived with her completely amoral bff Fausta. They’ve come to visit the Egyptian Princess Berenice, cut from the same cloth as Fausta. This only helps introduce Decius to more elaborate and extravagant parties, like the one at the Temple of the Muses where a particularly abrasive philosopher is murdered.

The mystery is irresistible to Decius and he convinces Ptolemy to put him in charge of the investigation, which baffles both Egyptians and Romans. Not the murder, but who cares who killed the philosopher? Despite apathy, resistance and attempts on his life, Decius continues his queries.

He uncovers a plot to break Egypt away from the influence of Rome and place a new ruler on the throne. His enemies are using him as the powder keg to ignite furious anti-Roman sentiment throughout the city.

On his side, Decius has his insubordinate slave Hermes who has a knack for picking up juicy but usually accurate gossip; and his intelligent bride-to-be Julia, who possesses an intelligent and inquisitive mind.

Temple of the Muses moves at a fast pace and keeps the reader’s interest to the very last page with a fascinating and funny mystery. Decius’ quandary while standing over the body of an attacker is hysterical. Roberts leaves us with a tantalizing hook for the next story. Decius has been bound and gagged by his relatives and put on the next ship leaving Alexandria. Apparently, he is too much of an embarrassment there as well as Rome.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

It’s impossible to not like Amelia Peabody, the main character in Elizabeth Peters’ series. She is the quintessential prim, proper, Victorian-era Englishwoman, always taking charge, making sure the world behaves. That isn’t easy when the world is infested by men, who are boorish, rude and say the most inappropriate things at the most inopportune times.

Despite the omnipresent oppression of the English gentlewoman by the male population, Miss Peabody is well-established at thirty-two, thanks to a large inheritance from her late father, but she has no husband, no suitors and doesn’t want either.

Resigning herself to spinsterhood, Amelia decides to spend the winter in Egypt instead of England’s dreary climate. With barely a foot on the African continent, she rescues a young woman with a sad story. Amelia takes the girl under her wing and up the Nile. This is how Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first in the series begins.

Before leaving Cairo, Amelia and Evelyn meet a pair of archaeological brothers. The youngest, Walter Emerson, is well-mannered, well-spoken and instantly besotted by Evelyn. His older brother, Radcliffe, has an entirely opposite demeanor. He is abrasive, arrogant and condescending to everyone.

Amelia is all too pleased to leave their presence and Cairo with her new ward, but several days into their journey, they encounter the brothers again. Despite the irascible Radcliffe, Amelia is fascinated by the discoveries he’s made at his excavation. But it also seems they have angered the spirit of the long-dead king whose tomb has been uncovered. A mummy begins haunting their camp at night, terrorizing the workers and nearby villagers who fear the old king’s wrath. Amelia and Radcliffe are quite certain there is nothing supernatural going on so what is the purpose of trying to scare them? Who is masquerading as the mummy that is quite athletic and able to elude all attempts to capture him?

As far as cozy mysteries go, this one is as cozy as they get. No gory killings or other extreme acts of violence. The ending, somewhat expected, kept this from being a glorified Scooby-Doo mystery. The jokes are a lot better in Peters’ writing.

Elizabeth Peters pens a great narrative telling her story in first person from Amelia’s point of view. Her writing is witty, charming and a pleasure to read. Crocodile on the Sandbank whets the readers’ appetite for the start of a wonderful journey.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Nicholas Feast by Pat McIntosh

I read The Harper’s Quine, the first novel in Pat McIntosh’s series featuring Gilbert Cunningham and enjoyed it so I was glad to find The Nicholas Feast, the second book, not long ago.

I found this to be head and shoulders above the first which is usually the case in a serial. But that isn’t to put down The Harper’s Quine, which was a great novel. The Nicholas Feast takes place a few short months after the events in the first installment.

Gil Cunningham has returned to Glasgow University in 1492 for the Nicholas Feast. After a play performed by the students, one of the student actors is found dead in the university coalhouse, bound and strangled with his own belt.

Gil finds out that the dead man was more interested in extortion than his studies, collecting information that his fellows and faculty might pay dearly to keep quiet. The victim’s powerful and intimidating father and enemy of the Cunningham’s shows up in Glasgow demanding justice for his son and threatening to take his own brand of cruel justice if Gil doesn’t deliver the murderer after the funeral.

He has to work fast to meet the Montgomery’s deadline by since the entire University is suspect, his task seems monumental. Fortunately, he has the help of his friend Master Pierre and his daughter Alys, to whom Gil is betrothed. Alys is beautiful, in love with Gil and possesses an intelligent mind and wit. Unfortunately, Gil’s overbearing mother disapproves of the betrothal and is making her way to Glasgow.

Then a second murder occurs within the walls of the university. Gil is convinced the two deaths are connected although they appear to be separate incidents.

I enjoyed reading The Nicholas Feast but found it difficult in spots where McIntosh used Scottish terms or the vernacular. It took me a while to figure out that ‘yett’ meant ‘door’ or ‘gate’. The author also includes quote from medieval texts or medieval language that aren’t explained or interpreted. This doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the book however. All clues are presented to the reader in English.

Despite the lack of an ancient Scottish-English dictionary, I loved seeing fifteenth century Glasgow coming to life. There was even a passing reference to Christopher Columbus since he began his voyage in the same year the novel takes place.

The Nicholas Feast is a change from the English monarchs that we all know and (kinda) love. McIntosh’s stories are also reminiscent of Susanna Gregory’s novels featuring Matthew Bartholomew set in fourteenth century Cambridge. Both are awesome and wonderful reads.