This title won a number of awards when it was first published, including the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella, so I was expecting quite a lot going in. I was not disappointed. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I devoured this book and was constantly delighted by the ‘hard’ Science Fiction on display.
The premise sounds very intriguing: an exploration of the strains placed upon American society by the development by a group that is unquestionably not “created equal”. I mention the Declaration of Independence here, because it is a cornerstone for much of the political and sociological debate in the book. The concepts of freedom, responsibility, equality and community are explored in depth throughout the story and the characters repeatedly refer to the Declaration of Independence as well as the writings and speeches of Abraham Lincoln. I found this far more interesting than I would have imagined, because it sounds like it would be rather dry and dull. However, the author keeps such discourse to a minimum and presents the arguments in such a way that they hold the attention and provoke contemplation of the issues involved rather than causing the eyes to glaze over and the mind to skip over these sections. I feel educated by this book, and that is not something that I can say very frequently.
The choice of the near future as the setting was a wise one, as it allows the author to use our contemporary world for much of the detail whilst adding some interesting futuristic developments. One that I would very much like to see in real life is the revolutionary cold fusion technology that has made energy both cheap and clean. The choice of the inventor to patent and license his technology within the US places the country at a massive commercial advantage, although the effects of his generosity are somewhat unexpected. His philosophy of the relationship between the individual and their community, called Yagaiism, is popular and adopted by many of the Sleepless because of its logical basis and apparent fairness. However, it does not answer the question of what to do about the Beggars in Spain of the title. If one sees one beggar it is easy to give that individual a small quantity of money. However, what happens when there are a hundred beggars, or a thousand?(less)
Unlike Marcus Didius Falco, the hero of Lindsey Davis’ series, the leading character of the SPQR series is from a wealthy and influential family. Although the Metelli are not one of the founding, Patrician, families, they have almost as much power in Rome. At this time, about 70 BCE, the Republic is plagued by the political aspirations of such characters as Pompey the Great and Crassus, reputedly the wealthiest man in the whole Roman world. Such famous imperialists as Catilina and Julius Caesar are junior officials with great ambitions and the famous orator Cicero has just burst upon the scene. Against this background of famous names we follow a much more obscure man in his pursuit of the truth, even though it endangers both his own life and his family’s reputation.
However, this book does not present a rarified view of the Roman Republic at this time. It is essentially the same stinking cesspit as we see through Falco’s eyes, although we do get to see a little more decadence and luxury. In some ways, the revelations about the famous names and important people makes the world seem even shabbier, because we expect so much more from these historical figures. Some do seem to live up to our perception of them, such as Cicero, but the others are disappointingly normal, scrabbling about for personal prestige, wealth or power. This is certainly not a book to read if you want to be overawed by the majesty that was Rome.
In a similar way to Falco, Decius is not your typical hero. He hates getting up whilst it is still dark and resents the many things that he has to do because they are expected or simply the ‘done thing’. After spending a few days following his rounds of client calls and maintaining political relationships, it is easy to see why he would be bored witless. This perhaps explains why he is so interested in investigating the deaths in his area, although he seems to possess a very proper sense of Roman justice that motivates his efforts to uncover who has killed some of ‘his’ people. He is burdened by the history of his family and also by its sheer numbers, although he does benefit from some rather useful connections because of it as well. His relationship with his father is particularly well drawn and is a constant point of frustration and humor for our hero.(less)
Apart from the obvious attraction of a series set in Ancient Rome, the Falco books have a great voice, as you can see above. The character of Falco draws very heavily on those down-at-heel, sarcastic and nihilistic Private Investigators that we all saw in black and white movies back in the day. He owes a great deal to the likes of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but does deviate from them in significant ways. He shares the typical PI background of military service and has a friend in local law enforcement, Petronius Longus, the Captain of the local Watch patrol. He also gets beaten on a regular basis and can usually handle himself in a dirty fight, using his witty repartee to really annoy his opponents. He is even susceptible to dangerous women, although he usually has to make do with cheap Libyan dancers.
However, he is not suave or poised, mostly due to the above-mentioned beatings and his persistent poverty. He is also plagued by an over-abundance of family members, rather than being a lonely and isolated figure. However, his family is a huge part of what makes Falco who he is, and they are endlessly entertaining. Finally, although he is rather cunning, and certainly intelligent, Falco makes progress mostly by blind luck and accident. He is regularly plagued by bad timing and terrible luck, and we can always assume that if something can go wrong then it undoubtedly will. Unsurprisingly, Falco’s running commentary is delivered with a world-weary tone that is both funny and endearing at the same time, making the titles in this series very easy and enjoyable to read.
Falco does not claim to be a hero, and yet he shows great courage and the type of persistence that would impress even the most determined terrier. He is also doggedly determined to fulfill his role as the head of his rather large, and almost unanimously ungrateful, family. We are as likely to find him babysitting his niece Marcia as mooching about on business. He is a man who has been dealt a rather dubious hand of cards by life and yet he doggedly attempts to do the best that he can. All of this, along with his witty banter, makes him a wonderful character to read.
Of course, no PI is complete without his femme fatale. Although she does not really fulfill this role in its entirety, Helena Justina is also an extraordinarily entertaining character. I do not want to spoil the events of this title, but she appears in a rather unexpected role in the later books of the series. Here we see their initial impressions of one another and their developing relationship, which is both touching and very realistic. She is just as snarky as Falco, and is more than capable of beating him in a round of banter. She is very intelligent and determined, which creates a massive headache for her long-suffering father. Headstrong and opinionated, she does what she wants, when she wants, but somehow always does it with marvelous style. As the daughter of a senator, she is totally out of Falco’s league: something of which he is painfully aware.
Of the supporting cast, perhaps the most entertaining in this title is Falco’s Mother. She is almost always disappointed by his behavior and life choices, and spends a great deal of time cleaning up after his messes. However, she cares deeply for her family and her son, even though she does tend to show this love through criticism and knowing sarcasm. This is a mother-son relationship that shows a great deal of affection without any cloying hugging and endless “I love you” sentiments. As with the Falco-Helena relationship, this feels very real and makes any moments of emotional display even more poignant.
The same could be said of Falco’s relationship with Petronius. These are two men who have shared a lot of hardships together in the army. They know each other so well that they often do not need to actually speak. There are several moments in the book when Petronius simply allows Falco the time that he needs to gather himself: no speech can truly reflect the depth of understanding that is communicated by just standing beside someone who is suffering. But Petronius is given a nicely rounded character of his own, even if he does seem to fit into a certain type. He is big and tough in his work, but a total pussycat at home with his three little girls.
Of course, a good cast does not guarantee a good read. The plot clips along at a good pace with plenty of surprising turns and red herrings thrown in along the way. However, there is little revealed to be significant at the end that is not mentioned earlier in the book. Most of the evidence is there, if you look for it, although it may not carry much significance until it is pointed out. I have to say that I prefer this type of mystery to those that are impossible to guess until the vital pieces of obscure evidence are revealed in the great dénouement when the murderer is exposed. It is not that I guessed who did what in this title when I first read it, but I can see all the evidence now when I reread it, which me feel as if I could have solved it if I had been paying slightly more attention. I like to feel as if it is possible, assuming that you are not as hopeless as me at guessing these things.
As a person who has spent a great deal of time studying the Ancient Roman period, I have no quibbles with the way in which Ms Davis builds her world. The atmosphere seems suitably grungy: something that the HBO series Rome captured equally well. I have yet to detect an error in her world building, even though I am famous for my nit picking when reading books, so I do not have to worry about being thrown out of her world by a glaring error. It is so nice to know that I can relax into her titles without feeling compelled to keep running to my textbooks because I do not trust what she says. I am sure that some people are a little surprised by some of the details that she includes, such as Falco’s appalling apartment, but I appreciate her attention to historical research.
I highly recommend this title to anyone who likes a good mystery novel that comes with a healthy dose of realism and cynical wit. The characterizations are realistic and excellently entertaining, with well-drawn relationships and delightfully dysfunctional personas. The setting is well researched and accurately portrayed, with no attempt to over-glamorize the era or its people. (less)
At first, I was not quite sure what to think of the book because we are introduced to several of our lead characters in quick succession. I have to admit that I almost gave up after about thirty pages because I was starting to feel somewhat lost and overwhelmed by this sudden immersion into at least two distinctively alien cultures. However, I am glad that I persevered because I quickly became caught up in exploring the rich landscape of cultures, religions and magic. I wish that the publisher had included a map so that I could have made a little more sense of some of the geography, but picturing Gujaareh as Alexandria in Egypt seemed to work fairly well for me.
The Egyptian influences are clear, especially in the dependence upon the annual river Flood to support agriculture and life within a desert environment. There were also nods to Egyptian dress, etiquette and architecture. The society also shared a similar caste system and range of methods of writing their language, from detailed pictograms to less formal cursive scripts. However, there were enough differences to make the world unique and interesting. We hear mention of plants and animals that seem to have no cousins here on Earth, and the dream-based religious system is like nothing I have read before.
The religion that is so fundamental to this series is an interesting amalgam of the most ancient forms of moon worship with the theory of the four humors that was prevalent from the time of the Ancient Greeks right up until the rise of modern medicine. The priests attempts to cure people by balancing these humors is very similar to treatments, such as bleeding and purging, that used to be so common. I was also intrigued by the concept of death being a transition to a spiritual plane that could be made to resemble paradise by an experienced practitioner so that the dying soul could be happy eternally. This seemed like a very worthwhile goal for the Gatherers and was a good of the gray aspects of so much of this title: this religion has so many good things to be said about it, and yet it is open to abuse and perversion.(less)
One thing I always appreciate in Fantasy writing is a world that is well drawn, whether it is loosely based upon Earth at some point in its history or is totally alien. Ms Wells creates a pleasantly unique world, inhabited by a wide variety of interesting creatures and races inhabiting the three realms. Although we do not explore the sea at all, we see several examples of the groundling races, which show adaptations to various habitats and climates. They also display a variety or temperaments, beliefs and cultures, which were sketched out with sufficient detail without a heavy-handed need for exposition. By making Moon an outsider in almost all situations, Ms Wells was able to let us explore this world through his experiences and so the world building did not feel forced or boring.
Although we have no idea how the Raksura or the Fell are able to shift between two forms, I did appreciate attempts to explain some of the other more alien concepts that we encounter. Most delightful of these were the floating sky-islands, which we learn are supported by a special type of magnet-like rock. This is revealed because one of the races harvests the stones to ‘power’ sky ships in a very neat piece of alternative technology. The scientist in me is always happy to have a seemingly impossible aspect of nature explained by a relatively straightforward nod to science.
The Raksura have a fairly complex social structure, which adds to their alien appearance to make them distinctly non-human. In fact, they are rather reminiscent of bees or other social insects in their organization into colonies. They also have specific social roles depending upon their biological form: in some books we might have had a sub plot about the injustice of certain castes being down trodden, but here they are all treated as equally valuable and there is no feeling of suppression or exploitation. I appreciated this willingness to present an alien culture without trying to insert human thinking or prejudices into the mix. My only criticism of the Raksura and their realization was that they seemed somewhat complacent and insular: a feature that created the problems that drove the main part of the plot. On the whole they seem very conservative and wary of changing how things are done. This timidity did not seem to really fit with their evolutionary design because they are fundamentally hunters not farmers. When trouble arises they are reluctant to take decisive action and this makes them seem overly weak and helpless.(less)