Murder in Absentia
For me, Murder in Absentia is a solidly 4* novel. A treat in numerous ways, a surprise in many, engrossing and unusual. I’m now applying a 5-point system for review, and given that, here’s why I rate Assaph Mehr’s work so highly.
- The world that Mehr creates. This book is a work of fantasy, though it is so closely-knit with the history of Imperial Rome that were it not for certain elements within the plot, it would be hard to see this as anything other than straight Roman fiction. The main location in this world seems to be a mash-up of Rome, the bay of Naples and Alexandria. It is clearly a fantastical version of the ancient city and culture of Rome, with geographical elements of the others drawn in. The naming conventions, social customs, dress, military, households and even religious aspects are very clearly Roman. The flavour is Roman. And it’s flavoured very well.
- The plot. Despite fantasy elements, this is essentially a whodunnit. It is a proper original mystery. Starting with a body – killed apparently during some dark, magical ritual – the hero, Felix the Fox, is retained by the victim’s father to solve the mystery of his death. The plot is full of twists, turns, herrings of the ruddy kind, and avoids too many cliches as it brings us to a satisfactory conclusion.
- The negative point here, and the reason for a 4* review rather than a 5* one: The book could have done with a thorough copy-edit. Lines like “he eyes were”, “an administrative organisations” and “if I we needed any more” are examples of the small typos that creep in. There is also a heavy tendency to mix tenses wihtin a sentence, which can be quite jarring. Also, anachronisms like “juiced up” sit a little difficult with me, though that’s really a personal preference, I suppose.
- The author’s handling of magic. There’s a lot of fantasy out there, and though I tend these days to concentrate on Historical Fiction, I’ve actually read plenty of it. Magic is often very Dungeons and Dragons in fantasy, or perhaps very Lord of the Rings. “Fireball! Magic Mouth! Prismatic Spray! These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Mehr’s form of magic used in the book is much more subtle and realistic, more reminiscent of the ritual in Lovecraftian horror or suchlike. It is all rites and tattoos of power and herbs and incantations. In short it worked, reading surprisingly believably and actually, oddly, it fits in well with the Roman feel of the background. You will, within the first 20% of the book, be viewing this magic as an everyday part of the culture.
- The detail. They say the devil is in the detail but if so, the devil is one hell of a helper to an author. The sheer scale of the bits and pieces of research Mehr has put into his Roman history for the book is impressive. From the nature of Roman Numina to the traditions of funerals and burial to the daily routine for the seeing of clients by Roman patrons, Mehr has really put in the work in his research.
So there you have it. A fascinating fantasy world, full of impressive real details and with a realistic and interesting type of magic, hosts a twisted and complex murder plot. Only the lack of a little proofing prevents this from being a genre-founding, mould-breaking novel. No, actually, it doesn’t. The novel is still that, and minor irritations over the specific text should in no way prevent you from buying and reading this. If you’re into Rome or Fantasy, you’ll enjoy it. If you’re into both, you’ll LOVE it.