Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review of Saturnalia by John Maddox Roberts

Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is one hero/sleuth who gets to be more fun with each book in John Maddox Roberts' ancient Rome mystery series.  When we last saw Decius, he was bound hand and foot on a ship, being sent into exile by his family, who had become too embarrassed by his antics.  In first century BC Rome, this is no small feat.  Actually, it was Decius' unmitigated gall to confront people far more powerful than him with their wrong-doings and somehow survive.  His exile was partly to protect him.

His family is too well-aware of his ability to solve mysteries, due to his indefatigable curiosity and propensity to investigate the unknown.  They retrieve him from exile when a relative dies under mysterious circumstances and they want Decius to ferret out his murderer.  As with everything those days in Rome, it all comes down to politics.  His deceased kinsman was married to Clodia, a powerful, wealthy and dangerous woman, who is the sister of Clodius, Decius' sworn mortal enemy.

The Metelli want him to find Clodia as the poisoner, but in a bizarre move that stuns even the unflappable Decius, Clodius declares a truce and asks him to clear his sister's name.  Clodius is about to start a year of tribuneship, a very good year for Decius to be absent from Rome, and a scandal could mar his term.  Politics.

All this comes about on the eve of Saturnalia, one of the most joyous, rambunctious celebrations of unbridled revelry of the Roman year. 

For once, Decius moderates his intake of alcohol and is the much better for is.  His knack for getting into trouble is outweighed by his luck in getting out of it, but just barely.  He stumbles onto a coven of witches, celebrating an ancient, forbidden rite.  Only Decius could be insulted when told he isn't good enough to become their human sacrifice.

There's more than just mystery in Saturnalia, the fifth of the series.  Decius is party to many discussion on Caius Julius Caesar's plan to conquer Gaul and Germany, a move his enemies and opponents applaud since they believe it will be the end of him.  Decius also has an interesting conversation on foreign and Roman religions with Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Roberts takes the reader into the wild revelry of Saturnalia with fashions, parties and shenanigans that make it sound like an ancient Mardi Gras.  It feels like a time when, despite its horrors, it was good to be alive.

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