It's AD535 and Leukos, Keeper of the Plate at the court of the Emperor Justinian has been found murdered in a dirty alleyway in Constantinople and his friend John, Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor, is determined to discover who was responsible for the crime. He soon discovers that one of the last people to see Leukos alive was Thomas, an English knight who has lately arrived in Constantinople searching for the Holy Grail and he maintains that Leukos could have been killed for a holy relic. Though John is tempted to like and trust Thomas, he isn't above suspicion as he seems to bump into the Englishman at every turn.
As John pieces together Leukos's final days, more suspects come into the frame and some high ranking individuals seem to be taking a more than a casual interest in the case and it will take all of John's investigative skills and ingenuity to get to the bottom of this seemingly random killing.
I love historical mysteries especially those set in the ancient world. There are quite a few writers who concentrate on the ancient empires of Rome, Greece and Egypt at the height of their powers but, as far as I'm aware, B E Mayer's series is the only one to be set during the decline of the Roman Empire. This isn't a period or setting with which I was particularly familiar before reading this book but it's opened up a rich seam of new information about the city of Byzantium, later called Constantinople and now known as Istanbul, which became the capital of the later Roman Empire and the city where east meets west.
B E Mayer is the pen name of husband and wife team, Eric Mayer and Mary Reed, and their in-depth knowledge of the rich and diverse history connected with Byzantium is what gives this novel such appeal, coupled with a strong and likeable main protagonist with a rather tragic history of his own.
John is Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor Justinian and (cross your legs guys) he's a eunuch. Though John's castration happened a long time before the start of the novel when he was a soldier, his back story is told in the book and makes for quite a harrowing read. Although his lack of genitalia has no great bearing on the mystery, it certainly contributes a great deal to the character of the man. He is largely resigned to his place in the world, he's an enigmatic and caring man who has made the best of a bad situation without forgetting what he once was or the things he experienced in his former life. He is a man who values his friendships, the reason why he's determined to discover the motivation behind the killing of Leukos. John may work for the Christian Emperor Justinian but he himself is a practitioner of a much older belief system, Mithra, and information about the practices of this religion are not only interesting but add yet another layer to John's personality.
The author's knowledge of this period of history and of the Mithraic tradition in particular are a real bonus and bring a wonderful sense of time and place to the story and although I've never been to Istanbul the way the ancient city of Constantinople is described here makes me feel as if I know it well, in much the same way as I feel I know Ancient Rome when reading Lindsey Davis's Falco books. The authors admit that some of the religious practices attributed to the Mithraic tradition are made up as there isn't a huge amount of documented evidence remaining about this faith.
One thing that comes across very strongly is how little the world has changed in the last 1500 years or so. We still have the same hopes and aspirations and though there are elements of the story such as unbelievable cruelty, prostitution and slavery which seem very much things of the past and certainly repugnant to modern reader, the sad fact is that they are still very much evident in our own world.
The mystery at the heart of this novel isn't a simple one but has many intertwining strands all of which make it nearly impossible to untangle quickly and which keeps the reader guessing almost to the end. There are lots of seemingly unrelated characters and incidents with a fair few red herrings thrown into the mix. Although John himself is a cerebral type rather than a man of action, there is enough pace to the story to keep the reader engaged and don't be fooled into thinking that because John has been castrated, he's any less of a masculine character: far from it.
With regard to all the secondary characters, in the main they are well rounded and realistic with the possible exception of Thomas the Englishman. Thomas is a knight from the court of King Arthur and is therefore a part historical, part mythical construct, given that there's no evidence of the existence of King Arthur or his court. Apart from that, there's a mixing of real and fictional characters which works very well here and certainly adds realism but the historical facts are mainly used to enhance the story and are never allowed to get in the way of what turned out to be a cracking tale blending history, murder and mystery.
This story is the first in a series of nine books featuring John the Eunuch and if they're all as good as this first one, I shall certainly be reading more.
Publisher: Head of Zeus
This book was originally printed in the USA and is being re-published on 1st April but is currently selling for 66p in Kindle format.