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Murder in Absentia

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

Written by SJAT

January 14, 2016 at 10:38 am

A Day of Fire

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adayoffire

What Pompeii the movie should have been.

 

The benefit of such a tale being told in six different stories by six different people is that it bears a certain resemblance to the good old-fashioned disaster movie. These days they tend to be released as love stories or thrillers or suchlike against the background of a disaster, but you remember the old ones? The Poseidon Adventure? Airport? The Towering Inferno? Even Volcano, I suppose. Part of the joy of those movies was that the story was not one plot but a basket of inter-weaved plot-lines set against a single series of events, often throwing disparate characters together and telling the whole tale from a variety of viewpoints. And that’s what we have in Day of Fire, with the stories cleverly interlinked to a greater or lesser extent.

Off the bat, I’ll say that the only writer of the six included here that I’ve previously read is Ben Kane, but his pedigree is such that it would hook me regardless. Happily I was pleasantly surprised. There being such a variety within I couldn’t hope to review the book as a whole without attention to the individual tales, so here’s a blow-by-blow review, interspersed with a few appropriate pics of Pompeii ripped from my collection for colour.

 

The Son by Vicky Alvear Shecter

 

Pompeii - The Brothel

 

introduces us to the locale, the time, and the initial problems with Vesuvius, taking us through a story of young lust, betrayal and intrigues, told with an easy, familiar style that is well informed and thick with Pompeian atmosphere, dropping us into the troubled life of the nephew of the great admiral Pliny the Elder. I was initially unsure of it as an opening tale, perhaps because it is so often said that a novel will only sell if the opening scenes are crammed with blood and action (and such is my most common reading fare) and perhaps, given the fact that this is a tale of Vesuvius, I was expecting an opening scene filled with volcanic action. But very soon I settled into the tale and started to enjoy the ride. The last stages of the story were particularly well presented and the story left me with an impression of polished style and a solid understanding of human nature. All in all, it was a superb opening to the collection.

 

The Heiress by Sophie Perinot

 

Pompeii - Via Stabiana 01

I found a little more troublesome. Not for the story or the characters, which were both very well presented, and again the flavour was just right, but for the fact that the story was written from two viewpoints and one of them was presented in the first person, present tense, which I find faintly headache-inducing to read. Still, as I said, the story was well enough told that it made me persevere, and I’m glad I did, for the end result was one of enjoyment and, after all, half of the tale is told in the first person past tense. This story of a woman hurtling with unstoppable momentum towards an arranged marriage she fears has a real feel of humanity about it, and introduces us to a number of recurring characters. It also perhaps made me reconsider the importance of the arranged marriage in Rome and the effects upon those involved.

 

The soldier by Ben Kane

 

Pompeii - Amphitheatre (Interior 02)

 

is a Kane tale in spades. Ben is one of the leading lights in both the Roman and Military genres for a reason. Unlike many who can admirably present a battle and a tale of spilled blood and spilled brains, Kane is one of the very best for interlacing a human element that gives such stories a real depth of feeling, and that is if anything more pronounced here than in his previous novels. This tale of a broke and desperate ex-soldier pinning all his hopes of surviving his creditors on a gladiator is a real gem. Kane’s usual military action comes here in the form of the games in the arena rather than battle, but that is a small part of the whole, which is a tale of brotherhood and survival more than anything else. This is also the first tale in the collection that focuses heavily on the effects of the eruption on the city of Pompeii, which has been building in the previous two.

The Senator by Kate Quinn

 

Pompeii - Arch of Nero 01

 

was the biggest surprise of the collection for me. It was, I think, also my favourite tale in the book. I’d not read anything by Kate before, and while I may well read other books by these writers going on, I have already bookmarked Quinn’s ‘Mistress of Rome’ on the strength of this. Essentially this section, which builds beautifully on the back of characters and events that have already appeared in the earlier tales, tells the story of a disillusioned senator about ready to give up on life who finds himself, after an earlier encounter, trapped in the doomed city in the company of a feisty young woman (also following her earlier appearance.) It is the story of their journey through the destruction and terror of the disaster and their interaction, in particular the effects said interaction have upon each other. It is told with warmth, understanding, humour, love and at times a bleakness. I would rank it one of my favourite explorations of character I’ve ever read.

 

The Mother by E. Knight

 

Pompeii - House of Pacuius Proculus 01

 

to be quite honest I had a little trouble with again, since again the whole tale is written in first person, present tense for each point of view. I persevered, since the story once again built upon characters and events from earlier in the collection, and by the time you hit tale 3 in this book, you want to know what happens to everyone (which is a good sign.) And once again, I have to say that the story was fine and well-told, but made hard work for me by the tense in which it was written. The story of a woman about to give birth in a doomed city is a deep and troubling one.

 

The Whore by Stephanie Dray

 

Pompeii - The Brothel (Wall Painting 02)

 

Curiously, I’m at loggerheads with what I want to say about the the sixth and final tale in the collection. It is another (like the second) that tells two viewpoints with two different ways – one of them being First Person, present tense. Upon first realising that I almost gave up and skipped it but, having been through the other five and knowing that this tale  revolved around two characters who have been part of the series from the start, I found myself reading and soon discovered that I could not stop. I managed to overcome my aversion to the tense very easily to read this tale of two whores in the last throes of Vesuvius, confronting and overcoming their long-term issues as they try to decide whether to stay in hell and do their duty for their owner, to flee the disaster, or – in one case at least – follow the dictates of their heart. This is the tale that ends the book. This is the on that makes you think. This is the wrap up and it is beautifully done in terms of character.

 

So there you have it. Six tales, interlinked and telling the stories of numerous inhabitants of Pompeii on the day Vesuvius erupts – the Day of Fire. As is noted in the book’s introduction, while all the tales are connected, none of the connections are critical to the understanding of the others, so if one does not take your fancy, you can easily skip to the next. The interweaving is extremely well done and becomes clearer as the collection progresses, and the progress of the eruption and the destruction of the city is well-portrayed, advancing slightly with each tale. I am pleased to see a realistic approach to the eruption here, by the way. No vast lava flows snaking through the streets or fireballs or explosions. The eruption described here follows the known sequence of events and does not – as is apparently so often the case – mix up what happened to Pompeii with what happened to Herculaneum (or even in the most dreadful cases Mt Thera or Krakatoa!)

 

Essentially, A Day Of Fire has something for everyone, and I cannot imagine any reader of historical fiction not finding within one or more tale that suits them. I have picked up a number of new authors to follow, which is the symptom of a good read.

 

The book is available tomorrow and can be pre-ordered beforehand. Go get it and have a good read, folks. And to finish, a little something about the authors:

 

Vicky Alvear Shecter

 

VICKY ALVEAR SHECTER is the award-winning author of the young adult novel, Cleopatra’s Moon (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2011), based on the life of Cleopatra’s only daughter. She is also the author of two biographies for kids on Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. The LA Times called Cleopatra’s Moon–set in Rome and Egypt–“magical” and “impressive.” Publisher’s Weekly said it was “fascinating” and “highly memorable.” Her young adult novel of Pompeii, Curses and Smoke (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic), released in June 2014. She has two other upcoming books for younger readers, Anubis Speaks! and Hades Speaks! Vicky is a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta. Learn more at http://www.vickyalvearshecter.com/main/

Sophie Perinot
SOPHIE PERINOT is the author of the acclaimed debut, The Sister Queens, which weaves the story of medieval sisters Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence who became queens of France and England respectively. Perinot has both a BA in History and a law degree. A long-time member of the Historical Novel Society, she has attended all of the group’s North American Conferences, serving as a panelist at the most recent. When she is not visiting corners of the past, Sophie lives in Great Falls, VA. Learn more at: www.SophiePerinot.com

Ben Kane

BEN KANE worked as a veterinarian for sixteen years, but his love of ancient history and historical fiction drew him to write fast-paced novels about Roman soldiers, generals and gladiators. Irish by nationality but UK-based, he is the author of seven books, the last five of which have been Sunday Times top ten bestsellers.Ben’s books have been translated into ten languages. In 2013, Ben walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall with two other authors, for charity; he did so in full Roman military kit, including hobnailed boots. He repeated the madness in 2014, over 130 miles in Italy. Over $50,000 has been raised with these two efforts. Learn more at http://www.benkane.net/

 

 

Kate Quinn

KATE QUINN is the national bestselling author of the Empress of Rome novels, which have been variously translated into thirteen different languages. She first got hooked on Roman history while watching “I, Claudius” at the age of seven, and wrote her first book during her freshman year in college, retreating from a Boston winter into ancient Rome. She and her husband now live in Maryland with an imperious black dog named Caesar. Learn more at http://www.katequinnauthor.com

eliza knight
E. KNIGHT is an award-winning, indie national best-selling author historical fiction. Under the name, Eliza Knight she writes historical romance and time-travel. Her debut historical fiction novel, MY LADY VIPER, has received critical acclaim and was nominated for the Historical Novel Society 2015 Annual Indie Award. She regularly presents on writing panels and was named Romance Writer’s of America’s 2013 PRO Mentor of the Year. Eliza lives in Maryland atop a small mountain with a knight, three princesses and a very naughty puppy. For more information, visit Eliza at www.elizaknight.com.

 

Stephanie Dray

STEPHANIE DRAY is a multi-published, award-winning author of historical women’s fiction and fantasy set in the ancient world. Her critically acclaimed historical Nile series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into more than six different languages, was nominated for a RITA Award and won the Golden Leaf. Her focus on Ptolemaic Egypt and Augustan Age Rome has given her a unique perspective on the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Learn more at: StephanieDray.com

Written by SJAT

November 3, 2014 at 8:00 am