>> Friday, October 27, 2006
When Marcus Didius Falco, a Roman “informer” who has a nose for trouble that’s sharper than most, encounters Sosia Camillina in the Forum, he senses immediately all is not right with the pretty girl. She confesses to him that she is fleeing for her life, and Falco makes the rash decision to rescue her—a decision he will come to regret. For Sosia bears a heavy burden: as heavy as a pile of stolen Imperial ingots, in fact. Matters just get more complicated when Falco meets Helena Justina, a Senator’s daughter who is connected to the very same traitors he has sworn to expose. Soon Falco finds himself swept from the perilous back alleys of Ancient Rome to the silver mines of distant Britain—and up against a cabal of traitors with blood on their hands and no compunction whatsoever to do away with a snooping plebe like Falco….This is a book I would have enjoyed for the setting alone (Rome in the year AD 70, including a visit to Roman-occupied Britain? I'm so there!), but I'm glad to report it also has an interesting plot, engaging characters and even a spot of very nice romance. A B+.
Marcus Didius Falco is a private informer (kind of like a private detective) living in Rome in the early days of Vespasian's reign. Falco isn't particularly successful in his work, and the main worry in his life is to avoid the gladiators his landlord keeps sending after him to get his unpaid rent (oh, and to keep his mother from sweeping out the young women she finds in his appartment when she comes to visit in the morning).
This seemingly careless life starts to change when Falco rescues a senator's young niece from kidnapping in the Forum, and gets mixed up in a situation involving stolen "silver pigs" (lead ingots with silver still in them) from the British mines, which someone is planning to use to bribe the Praetorian Guard into deposing Vespasian.
Now, Falco is a Republican, so he ordinarily would stir himself to expose a plot of this nature, but things become personal when someone murders the senator's niece, the very pretty and sweet Sosia Camillina, and Falco will do anything in his power (even go back to that godforsaken place, Britain, where he'd once served as a soldier) to avenge her death.
Falco is a wonderful narrator. At first he seems to be just a wise-cracking, care-for-nothing lout, but you soon beging to see that though he tries to paint himself as disreputable and cynical, there's a very noble core under that. From the way Sosia's death hits him so hard, to the way he's taking care of his dead brother's little girl, this is a guy who's much more of a softie than he'd care anyone to know.
I also loved reading his take on things. This is actually a very funny book, not because the situations are particularly funny, but because Falco has a somewhat skewed way of looking at things, and the deadpan way in which he puts his observations is hilarious.
Having this lovely man be living in the time and place he lives is just gravy. I've no idea if Davis's Rome is accurate or not, so I can't comment on that, but I can say that it's a fascinating, colourful place, and that she really brings it alive. The book's chock-full of wonderful details that never come across as info-dumps, and I loved every one of them. Only one thing: I wish we'd seen more of Britain.
What else? Well, the actual mystery is ok, nothing spectacular and a bit convoluted, but it kept my interest. And the romance... very nice! I'm not going to reveal any details, but the woman Falco finally falls for is just perfect for him. At first I feared it might be Sosia (I knew there was a bit of romance in this one, and he does initially have some attraction towards Sosia, something that made me very uncomfortable, because the girl was 16!), but it's someone much, much more interesting.
So now to try to collect the other 17 books. *sigh* I'm exhausted just to think of it! ;-)