Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Catalina's Riddle

Catalina's Riddle
1993 Steven Saylor
430 pages

Returning to Steven Saylor's Roma sub Rosa series was a treat last week, but I did not expect to be as riveted as I was this week while reading Catalina's Riddle. Our principle character is Gordianus the Finder, and the story is set in between The Arms of Nemesis and The Venus Throw: a friend of Gordianus' has died and left him his farm. Discouraged by the political corruption and vileness of Rome, Gordianus has eagerly left his modest home in the city to his son Eco and become a farmer. The change in pace has not left him wholly satisfied: life in the fields is hard work, especially when blight renders the wheat harvest worthless and your neighbors hate you and headless bodies keep showing up on your property.

Although Gordianus tried to leave Rome behind, he soon learns that Rome is inescapable. A rider from the city comes to Gordianus and asks him to give service to Cicero -- a small service, given that it was Cicero's rhetorical abilities that won Gordianus' farm for him after his neighbors -- family of his late benefactor -- sued for it. Gordianus is asked to give refuge to Catalina. That Catalina, a rabble-rousing patrician whose political ideas make the "Optimates" -- the leading aristocracy of Rome -- froth at the mouth -- would need a safe harbor is not surprising. That Cicero would ask for a favor on Catalina's behalf is puzzling, as Cicero has become the aristocracy's mouthpiece. Indeed, Cicero's tactics to discredit Catalina were the final straw for Gordianus in leading him to decide to leave the city.

Unlike the other sub Rosa books, Gordianus is not playing the part of detective. For most of the book, he tends to his farm while the great political battle between Cicero and Catalina takes place in the city. This book almost seems a political thriller: while previous books have connected Gordianus' various hired work to political events at the time, none of those events were as big as the "Cataline Conspiracy". Catalina is accused of planning an insurrection while everywhere ambitious men plot and fill other men's pockets with silver. While Gordianus is morbidly contemplating the decay of the Republic, he is also contemplating the decaying and beheaded bodies that keep appearing on his property. Who is attempting to intimidate him, and to what end? There is no stability in Rome -- no one is completely reliable.

Catalina's Riddle is nicely done: as usual, Saylor brings historical artifacts and people to life. Rome is a living city: its fear is palpable. That this became a thriller of sorts instead of a mystery was not expected, but very enjoyable. I'd say it's my favorite of the sub Rosa books thus far. Unfortunately, I won't be able to complete the series: I only have access to two of the books (Rubicon and Caesar's Triumph), and those two have several books separating them.

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