Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Seven Wonders, by Steven Saylor (2012)

After the Wars of the Roses novel marathon, a little trip back to the Roman Empire is just the thing to clear the history palate. Steven Saylor's long-running series of historical-whodunnit novels starring Gordianus the Finder are great fun, and good history. Saylor has now penned a trio of prequel novels that fill in some of the earlier adventures of Gordianus. The first of the three is titled The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World.

Gordianus fans will remember that his official detective career began in late-republican Rome in 80 B.C. with the novel Roman Blood. The Seven Wonders takes readers back twelve years to 92 B.C. Eighteen-year-old Gordianus sets out on a tour of the Greek world, tagging along with his father's old friend Antipater of Sidon, a celebrated poet whose bucket-list goal is to visit (or revisit) all Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The grand tour begins in Ephesus (now on the west coast of Turkey) with the:
  1. Temple of Artemis. A short boat ride from Ephesus got them to 
  2. Halicarnassus and the Mausoleum. Next it's back to Greece to see the
  3. Statue of Zeus at Olympia, just in time for the 172nd Olympiad. The travelers board ship again to the island of Rhodes, where they visit the wreckage of the
  4. Colossus of Rhodes, felled by an earthquake. Then it's on to Babylon and the
  5. Hanging Gardens, and also the Ishtar Gate, only remaining (at that time) section of the walls that enclosed the ancient city. Last stop is Egypt, to see the 
  6. Great Pyramid of Giza, only one of the seven wonders that is still standing. The tour ends in Alexandria, where once stood the 
  7. Pharos of Alexandria, the famous lighthouse that replaced the Ishtar Gate in later lists. 
Of course, young Gordianus gets plenty of chances to use his blossoming detective talents, and also has his first sexual adventures (in several flavors). Saylor doesn't neglect the political turmoils of the times, weaving in a subplot related to the uprising of Mithridates VI of Pontus. Remaining in Alexandria, Gordianus misses the bloody rise in Rome of the dictators Marius and Sulla, but Colleen McCulloch has covered those stories extremely well.

As always, Saylor's style includes a lot of historical detail without ever getting pedantic - the downfall of many a lesser historical novelist. Wry humor and a lighthearted approach also help to keep things from bogging down. It's not the breakneck do-or-die action pace of a Dan Brown, but a more relaxed and cerebral sort of storytelling - one reviewer described Gordianus as a "Roman Sherlock Holmes". That's a pretty good comparison, if you imagine a modern American novelist's version of Holmes.

We'll save the "five criteria" evaluation for the conclusion of the trilogy, but it's safe to say that Saylor's novels always get high marks.

BTW - I realize that not all of the Wikipedia articles these links take you to are of high quality. You can do something about that - become a Wikipedia editor!

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