Saturday, June 9, 2012

"The Seven Wonders" by Steven Saylor (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"The year is 92 B.C. Gordianus has just turned eighteen and is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime: a far-flung journey to see the Seven Wonders of the World. Gordianus is not yet called “the Finder”—but at each of the Seven Wonders, the wide-eyed young Roman encounters a mystery to challenge the powers of deduction."

INTRODUCTION: Outside speculative fiction, no contemporary writer is more appreciated by me than Steven Saylor for his wonderful Roma sub Rosa series with its main character Gordianus "the Finder" who is my current #1 fiction hero.

I summarized my impressions to the Gordianus novels HERE and I reviewed Empire, the second installment in the author's take on Roman history by following about 11 centuries of the fortunes of a patrician family entrusted with a special religious symbol.

What about the author's highly awaited return to Gordianus' adventures in The Seven Wonders? Read on for my take on it, but in brief I have to say that it fulfilled my expectations and even surprised me a bit towards the ending which opens the possibilities of more from Gordianus' early career before his brilliant entrance in the Rome of the high and mighty, when helping Cicero's subtle attack on Sulla's dictatorship in Roman Blood.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Seven Wonders consists of short stories - most published last year in various magazines and anthologies of which I have previously read some four - glued together with an introduction in Rome where we get to see Gordianus' father and an epilogue in Alexandria, where Bethesda appears in the hero's life.

The topic of the stories is self-explanatory and the blurb above covers the needed details more than adequately, so I will talk about the general feel of the book rather than each adventure individually. There is a mystery - sometimes more obvious, sometimes more thriller-like than puzzling - but in each case the setting and the secondary characters are the highlight in addition of course to the still wise-cracking narration of Gordianus.

Structurally The Seven Wonders has the unifying thread of the Mithridatian menace to Rome which leads to the ambiguous motivations of various characters and gives a subtle feeling to the book as a whole which could not be discerned by having read the stories themselves on original publication.

Also as hinted throughout the series, Gordianus is not averse to men either and here he comes out - to us of course as the classical antiquity's mores where different and trickier; I really loved that part and I would just note that more than anything, this shows the difference between the 1990's and 2012 in US social mores and of what is deemed appropriate for publication in mainstream books...

Gordianus' voice at 18 still compelling and while he is appropriately youthful and overall I think I prefer his more mature and wiser voice of the novels, the book gets the balance well in this regard. Also the Rome introduction and the Alexandria finale are outstanding as historical fiction on their own, so there is scope for more young Gordianus, both in Egypt and at Rome, though I still want that promised novel with Gordianus warning Caesar on the Ides of March...

Since most of the stories were published earlier they obviously needed self-containment, so by necessity they tend to be simplistic as mysteries and lack the powerful unity of the novels, while the continual switching of venues tends to break the narrative flow but that was to be expected in what is essentially a "fix-up" novel.

 I would have really loved more about the travel itself as Gordianus and Antipater cover quite a distance in visiting the Seven Wonders and occasionally interesting venues in their neighborhoods - the time is done well, no flying so to speak -but the travel details are skimped on and I missed that.

Overall, The Seven Wonders (highly recommended novel of 2012) is a very good introduction to Gordianus. While not at the level of the best novels in the series, the book does an excellent job within its parameters that impose quite a few restrictions, while managing to have an unifying thread and wonderful first and last parts.

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