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.

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