Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rubicon

Rubicon
© 1999 Steven Saylor
276 pages

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"Alea iacta est."/"The die is cast." / "Let the game begin!" - Julius Caesar

"The most honest man in Rome! No wonder nobody likes you." (Pompey, to Gordianus.)

Murder on the Appian Way began with the people of Rome rioting in the streets. Although our Roma sub Rosa narrator Gordianus was able to leave the city on business, he was unable to escape the political maneuvering that resulted from the murder of populist Publius Clodius.Partially as a result of the increasing political instability, Rubicon begins with news of Julius Caesar's having broken the law of Rome and crossed the northern frontiers of Italy with his army. The Republic has reached point of crisis. Aging and allegeldy retired Gordianus the Finder would just as soon spend the rest of his life in his study, reading through plays and memoirs while entertaining his grandchildren, but it so happens that a visitor to his home is found death in his garden under the eyes of a newly repaired statue of Minerva. The visitor happens to be a young relative of Pompey the Great, one that the dictator is quite fond of. As Gordianus prepares to sort out the means of the young man's death, Pompey the Great himself arrives at Gordianus' door to inquire as to where his relative and courier has gone off to. When he finds out that his relative's destination is somewhere beyond the river Styx, he promptly seizes Gordianus' new son-in-law Davus out of spite and impresses him into military service. Davus will only be released from his newfound obligation when Gordianus has solved the mystery of who murdered young Pompeius and why.

The timing is rather unfortunate, as Julius Caesar is marching through the Italian peninsula with his army. His position in Rome being weak, the Great One is departing with those loyal to him to Italy's extreme south, where he hopes to rally supporters around him. Gordianus must solve the murder before Caesar and Pompey's armies meet: for no matter who wins, Gordianus will lose. His son Meto is Caesar's scribe, and with Davus in Pompey's army his family could meet great sorrow in the battle's aftermath. Such an investigation seems impossible, as everyone who might be of informational use has fled Rome -- either out of loyalty to Pompey or to hiding places in the countryside. Gordianus is given a chance to accomplish his mission when he spots Cicero's allegedly bedridden scribe and ex-slave Tiro strolling about Rome in disguise as an Alexandrian philosopher. Cicero and Gordianus may not share the same politics or values, but they both dread a Sullan-style dictatorship and are attempting to stay neutral -- although Cicero intends to keep on top of things by employing Tiro as a spy to both sides. Together Tiro and Gordianus set out for Brundisium, where they are expecting Pompey and Caesar to meet in battle.

In the last book I commented that the historical background of the novels was becoming increasingly important, and here my attention was attracted wholly to it, with little thought given to the murder that forces Gordianus into such a predicament. History is about to change, and the reader is able to see it happen through Gordianus' eyes. Rome is utterly deserted by its government, and the Appian way is occupied by marching troops. Before the book's end, Gordianus will have been invited into the tents of both Pompey and Caesar as they attempt to out-manuever the other. The book succeeds as historical fiction and fiction proper: after finishing the book and reflecting on it, I realized Saylor worked in more foreshadowing than usual in this work, perhaps as a consequence of telling the story differently. I often feel as though I'm literally following in Gordianus' footsteps, privy to his every thought and facial expression. To be sure, Gordianus always keeps some cards close to his vest, but in this book he seems to have lost an entire deck of cards in there. It's a fine addition to the series, and I eagerly await more.

It will be some time before I'm able to continue the series, though. I cannot find the three books three books preceding The Triumph of Caesar and following Rubicon in any of my libraries, and I will not read Triumph out of order for purposes of continuity, so I have purchased the books used through Amazon marketplace, and I cannot say how long it will take for Last Seen in Massilia to arrive.

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