Monday, October 19, 2009

A Mist of Prophecies

A Mist of Prophecies
© 2003 Steven Saylor
304 pages

Gordianus the Finder and Rome have been through much turmoil in the past two preceding books, Rome having been plunged into civil war by the ambitions of those two men and Gordianus having been dragged behind history's wake by his family -- one son serving as Caesar's aid, and a son-in-law kidnapped into Pompey's service. A Mist of Prophecies provides a respite: after becoming more important and then directing the plots of the books, the historical background has become once more background. Gordianus the Finder has returned to Rome to rest, while Caesar and Pompey have their battles in Greece, Spain, and elsewhere. Rome is far from a peaceful sanctuary, however: although Caesar left a government to manage the city, it is now largely ruled by the creditors. Mob action against the creditors features into the book's plot.

The book opens with a young seeress called Cassandra collapsing into Gordianus' arms in the market as he and his wife shop for radishes to cure said wife's illness. Cassandra lives only long enough to tell Gordianus that "she did it, Gordianus...she poisoned me". The death of this purportedly half-mad seeress from parts unknown has a strange effect on Gordianus: despite being in debt himself, he arranges to have this stranger to Rome properly buried, complete with a funeral process. As her body is being burned in the necropolis, Gordianus happens to see the hill lined with Rome's matrons -- the leading ladies of Rome's patrician class are all in attendance, watching from their litters with guards in tow. Gordianus is at once puzzled: what is their connection to the deceased?

Cassandra's memory will haunt Gordianus until he is told to stop moping and solve the mystery of who killed her. Cleverly, Saylor uses Gordianus' recollections of his encounters with Cassandra while he moves through the city interviewing the matrons to catch the reader up on Rome's political happenings since Last Seen, as Mist is set about a year since then. Saylor thus avoids giving the reader an extended lecture, as the order in which Gordianus sees the matrons coincides with his recollections. We thus get two stories running with one another: one political, one a mystery. What is unusual about this book is that rather than Gordianus tell it in person, he seems to be recalling it from the future, referring to even events set in the present as "In those days...". Usually Gordianus narrates the story as he lives it, and the reader is given a sense of following in his footsteps. This is a tale to be told to us, although as the book progresses the feeling of the usual format becomes more pronounced. The plot wraps things up nicely, giving us an answer to why Gordianus felt impelled to give the young woman a funeral -- and giving us a look into continuing character development on his part.

Although Mist of Prophecies isn't the most riveting of the sub Rosa series, it's still a fine addition. Next week I may continue in the series proper or take a break to read through a collection of short stories set within the series as a whole, in the same vein as The House of the Vestals.

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