Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Temple of the Muses - John Maddox Roberts

1992; 203 pages.  Book #4 of the SPQR series.  Genre : Historical Adventure; Murder Mystery.  New Author? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Who would want to kill a crotchety old Alexandrian philosopher?  That's what our hero, Decius, wants to find out, even if it's technically none of his business.  He's part of a Roman diplomatic mission to Egypt, but his specialties are offending the natives and getting into trouble.  Fortunately, he's also pretty good at solving crimes.

What's to like...
    The story is set in Ptolemic Alexandria - slightly before the reigns of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar come to pass.  The Temple of the Muses is a history-lover's detailed delight - you can envision the streets and buildings of ancient Alexandria in its prime as Decius nakes his rounds investigating the murder.

    The story is told in the first person, and John Maddox Roberts gives our hero and abundance of wry wit.  Decius has some entertaining insights about religious cults (and religions in general) and political intrigue, which is the same in any age.  He also treats the subject of slavery evenly - horror stories are avoided, and Decius' slave, Hermes, is both a servant and a confidant.  But Decius is also aware that Hermes would bolt at the first chance if he was sure that he wouldn't be caught again.

Kewlest New Word...
Sistrum : a musical instrument of ancient Egypt consisting of a metal frame with transverse metal rods that rattle when the instrument is shaken.  See the Wikipedia article on it here.

    The previous generation of Ptolemies had assassinated one another nearly out of existence, and an irate Alexandrian mob had finished the job.  A royal bastard, Philopator Philadelphus Neos Dionysius, who was, in sober fact, a flute-player, had been found to fill the vacant throne.  For more than a century Rome had been the power broker in Egypt, and he appealed to Rome to help shore up his shaky claim and we obliged.  Rome would always rather prop up a weak king than deal with a strong one.  (pg. 11-12)

    "That is the Temple of Baal-Ahriman, although in better days it was a respectable temple of Horus.  I would recommend that you avoid it, Senator.  It is a cult brought here by unwashed foreigners, and only the lewdest and most degraded of Alexandrians frequent it.  Their barbarous god is worshipped with disgusting orgies,"
    Hermes tugged at my arm.  "Let's go!  Let's go!".  (pg. 72)

A murder!  How thrilling!  (pg. 53)
   You'll find The Temple of the Muses in the Mystery section of your local bookstore or library, but if you read it for that, you'll be disappointed.  The key breakthrough moment is extremely contrived, and other logically important discoveries (such as a mercenary army training secretly in the desert) get mind-bogglingly ignored.

    OTOH, if you read this a historical fiction, you'll find it a fascinating story.  There's plenty of action, lots of intrigue, and a look at daily life in Ptolemic Egypt that you won't find anywhere else.

    At 200 pages, this is a quick read, and even though it is part of a series, it stands on its own quite nicely.  I liked it better than the Lindsey Davis 'Marcus Falco' book I read (reviewed here).  We'll give it 8 Stars, and if I run across any more of the series in the bookstores, I'm sure I'll pick them up.

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