Saturday, October 10, 2009

Last Seen in Massilia

Last Seen in Massilia
© 2000 Steven Saylor
277 pages

When I last visited Rome under the rose, I followed Gordianus as he experienced Rome at war. Pompey the Great fled Rome and then Italy when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and Gordianus was present to see Pompey’s last stand on Italian soil -- having gone their to rescue his son in law Davus from his de facto indentured servitude in Pompey’s army. Although Gordianus and Davus have returned to Rome safely at the opening of Massillia -- a Rome now governed by Marc Anthony on Caesar’s behalf -- a letter informing Gordianus of his son Meto’s death brings him to the south of Gaul. The city of Massilia, now Marseilles, is close to breaking under a Roman siege. Through audacious guile and divine (or authorial) favor, Gordianus is able to sneak inside the city, where he is told that his son Meto was exposed as a spy and plunged to his death from the city’s sea-facing cliffs.

Gordianus is thus stranded in the city with miserable news plaguing his mind, but he is not the only man in Massillia to experience misery. The constant cry of babies attests to the beginnings of famine, and Gordianus himself witnessed a young woman plunge to her death in the same spot as Meto just hours after his arrival. A citizen of the city delivers Gordianus from his mental anguish when he asks him to ascertain the truth about his missing daughter, who he presumes was the cloaked woman whose death Gordianus witnessed.

As is usual in Roma, things are not as they seem: Gordianus and the others are in for many surprises, some dark and some relieving. Saylor's narrative is as strong as ever, and dominated by the historical context more than in novels prior. As I mentioned while reading Rubicon, the historical context is moving more and more of the books' plots in its wake. Saylor's focus is on the besieged city, but Gordianus' private mystery manages to keep its own in terms of vying for the reader's attention. The book has surprising character development in store for Gordianus, heightening my interest in how future events will shape him. The book is more poignant than most of Saylor's previous works: while I have often felt Gordianus' anger, indignation, satisfaction, pride, joy, and political weariness, Massilia forces the empathetic reader to experience sorrow and deep self-doubt. I am captivated by the drama of the Finder's life, but anxious as to what the consequences of the book's final pages will be for him. Eight books in, Saylor still manages to surprise me.

Readers interested in ancient military struggles will find Saylor's account of the city's siege to be particular interest.

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