Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 30, 2008

One For Sorrow

Historical mysteries have become very popular in recent years, spurred partly by the success of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series. Such novels tend to fall into two types: those in which the historical setting is merely intended to give a bit of color to an otherwise ordinary mystery; and those which are true historical novels in which the mystery is merely another plot device. Not being a huge fan of genre mysteries, I gravitate towards the latter type, highlighted by Steven Saylor’s superb Rosa Sub Rosa mysteries. I rarely care about the solution to the mystery itself, so the book had better appeal to me as historical fiction if I am going to enjoy reading it at all.

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer’s John the Eunuch series is an example of the latter type of historical mystery, and One for Sorrow, the opening novel in the series, is as much concerned with establishing the city of Constantinople during the 6th century reign of Emperor Justinian as it is with the murder itself. Its first chapter sets the tone, a scene set in the Hippodrome which deftly show the similarities between Constantinople and Rome, the citizens even calling themselves “Romans”. With no lecturing or exposition, we are almost immediately immersed in the city with crowds cheering over cruelties and threats of blood-letting, pots of night soil dropped from windows, and threats of violence lurking in every shadowed alleyway. We are also introduced to a fascinating cast of characters:

• John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, who is commonly known as “John the Eunuch” for obvious reasons;
• old soothsayer Ahasuerus to whom members of Justinian’s court go secretly for readings since fortune-telling is frowned upon by the Christian emperor;
• Cornelia, John’s lover from his pre-eunuch days, whom he has not seen since out of fear of what he has become;
• Europa, Cornelia’s daughter, who is revealed early in the book to be John’s daughter as well;
• Thomas, a knight emissary from the king of Britania who is seeking the Holy Grail in Constantinople;
• Isis, who runs a high-class brothel which services many members of the emperor’s court;
• Breta, the very young courtesan who attracts the interest of both Thomas and John’s friend Felix, but who very early in the book becomes the murderer’s second victim;
• Leukos, another member of Justinian’s inner circle who is a close friend of John and the murderer’s first victim.

The murders occur early in the novel, followed shortly by Justinian’s directive that John solve it, followed shortly afterwards by another directive for John to stop investigating. As any good detective does, John continues to investigate, leading the reader through the dark and dangerous streets of Constantinople where we encounter Isis’s brothel, an innkeeper and his shrewish wife, and the aging patriarch of Constantinople who has an inexplicable interest both in the solution of the murder and the soothsayer. We also meet the imperious emperor Justinian himself and his self-important wife. We learn in specific detail how and why John became a eunuch, perhaps the goriest scene in the book. We witness rituals of the religion of Mithra, which predated Christianity in the Roman Empire although sharing several important similarities, and which survives mostly through the beliefs of soldiers, since it is a male-only religion.

I thoroughly enjoyed the tour of Constantinople and its inhabitants, and look forward to seeing them again and learning more about them as the series continues. In truth, I was not enamored by the mystery itself whose solution seemed a bit contrived (but solutions to mysteries almost always seem contrived to me, so take that complaint with a grain of salt).

One for Sorrow is good historical fiction about a fascinating era in western history which is often overlooked in the modern fascination for the “dark ages” which gripped much, but not all, of Europe. It is recommended to fans of historical fiction.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home