Wrath of the Furies: A Novel of the Ancient World by Steven Saylor
Book Review by Jason Golomb
Steven Saylor has built his authorial reputation on modern historical fiction, particularly in the genre of historical mysteries. His “Roma Sub Rosa” series has seen 14 books published beginning in 1991 and continuing through 2015 with his 15th entrant in the series, “Wrath of the Furies: A Novel of the Ancient World”. This story is written primarily from the perspective of a young Gordianus, who grows up to become Gordianus the Finder, the Roman sleuth whose mysteries are set across the Roman Empire in Saylor’s Roma series. "Wrath of the Furies" is the third book of a trio of prequels to the Roma Sub Rosa series, this one set in Alexandria and Ephesus.
A second narrative perspective comes from Gordianus’ mentor, Antipater of Sidon, Greek poet of great renown who has been acting (mostly) as unwitting undercover spy working for Mithridates, scourge of the Roman empire and hero of Greeks across the Mediterranean. Antipater’s contribution to the story comes in the form of fragments from his diary. He reflects on his current status, and provides a view into the goings on of Mithridates who’s systematically bulldozing his way across the Empire destroying towns and cities and claiming the role of eastern avenger against the Roman Empire.
The story circles a number of mysteries, plots and subplots that run concurrently throughout the narrative:
1) A portion of the aforementioned diary arrives mysteriously at the home where Gordianus is staying in Alexandria. Gordianus travels east, into the thicket of Mithridates violence and hatred, to find his old mentor Antipater who seems to be in a desperate and dire situation in Ephesus.
2) Gordianus is cooling his heels in Alexandria which, for the moment, is not a target for Mithridates and so is a relative safe haven for Romans in the outskirts of the Empire. Gordianus must uncover, and perhaps eliminate, the plot of the great Mithradites to destroy all Romans residing in the outer territories of the Empire.
3) Pushed into a role of spy himself, Gordianus must also determine the fate and location of several secondary characters of varying levels of interest.
Antipater provides the more interesting elements of the plot as he writes in his diary from within Mithridates coterie. At times, he’s relegated to dining tables with the jugglers and entertainers who are available at the King’s beck and call, and sometimes called into consultation with the great king.
Antipater describes in great detail the environment of life from the edges of the King’s court, including the horrifically grim death of a Roman general bound with his mouth forced open and fed molten gold. And yes, this is all too familiar for fans of “Game of Thrones” who read (or saw) Khal Drogo kill the despicable Viserys Targaryen in a very similar manner, however Saylor’s retelling is completely based in fact.
What’s less factual is the storytelling tone and language. Everyone speaks in a fairly modern manner, replete with terms that were clearly originated well after the time frame in which this story is placed. Antipater describes himself acting like an ‘automaton’, using a term that wasn’t first spoken until the early 17th century (so sayeth Websters, at least). Considering Saylor’s reputation for historical authenticity, I was disappointed in the contemporary stylings of dialogue and narration; though do acknowledge that it may be purposeful as he targets his appropriate reading audience.
Considering that Antipater reminds us (every few pages) that he’s a poet of only the highest caliber, his diary fragments are rather less than poetic. They move the story well, and provide the most interesting elements of the narrative, but the language used is merely descriptive and mundane. I would’ve preferred to see Antipater's character and personality developed through the language within the diary. His profession is certainly not apparent outside of his own braggadocio.
And who are these Furies and why do they have wrath? Antipater explains to Mithridates:
The winged sisters are three in number: Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. They are older than Zeus and the other Olympian gods, having been born from the blood of Uranus when his son Kronos castrated him. They dwell among the dead in Tartarus, but are sometimes drawn to eat and to punish certain kinds of wickedness. Once they find the mortal culprit, they hound him relentlessly, circling him and shrieking, sting him with brass-studded scourges…They have snouts like dogs, bulging, bloodshot eyes, and snakes for hair. Their bodies are as black as coal, and they flit through the air on batlike wings.Mithridates has the Roman Empire shuddering due to the destructive force of his moving army. He has vowed to kill every Roman he can, but needs to ensure that he has raised the support, rather than ire, of the Furies. All good ancient commanders must heed their mighty gods. Gordianus has accidentally found himself smack in the middle of this Mithridates plot to pay obeisance to the Furies through human sacrifice.
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Saylor's narrative style is clean and straightforward. Like his character Antipater, he's not poetic, but the story is entertaining and, I suspect, will be of greatest interest to readers familiar with his characters and the Roma Sub Rosa storylines. Saylor continuously updates the reader as to the Roma Sub Rosa context of returning characters and plot elements. You can absolutely read “Wrath” independently from the rest of the series, but the experience will not be as satisfying. “Wrath of the Furies” is an enjoyable historical mystery and contains 320 pages.