This adult historical mystery series is set during a time that usually gets overlooked by historical novelists: the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire that spanned 1000 years. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Roman traditions, law, architecture, sports, literature, etc. carried on under the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire. And under Emperor Justinian, the Empire grew back to be the major Mediterranean power.
The protagonist is the all-powerful and unpredictable Emperor Justinian's Lord Chamberlain, John, the chief-of-staff, so to speak. John's character, life and history make up more than half of this 300+ page novel, which feels right, since this is the first book in the series and we want to know who this man is.
John's history is tragic, and his present is dangerous and precarious, but John has made the most of his situation, rising to a position of great power. It is his religion, Mithraism, that gives John the self-control to overcome his past and to perform his present duties. The Christian Empire allowed other religions as long as they were not too ostentatious.
The reader learns a lot about life in the sixth-century in the Empire's capital Constantinople. That is the fun of historical novels, and what the reader of historical novels enjoys. The amateur historian will not be disappointed! We get a real feel for what it was like to live in the walled city. For those less familiar with the times and people, be sure to read the Glossary before reading the novel. It provides most of the terms and historical people you need to know to appreciate the book.
Refreshing for me was John's attitude about slavery, since he "would not have employed a slave". But John is a man of his times, although not partaking of prostitution and pedophilia, he accepts it, along with the practice of men selling their daughters into sexual slavery in exchange for an ox. (You will see many similarities with some eastern nations today!). John was also a soldier, so he knows about the bloodlust that can overtake a man, and even relishes it at times.
There are some editing errors, some missing punctuation or punctuation errors, some fragmentary sentences, some missing words, but perhaps these have been edited out by now in the later editions and in the e-books.
The narration of the book is third-person limited. But we are not always limited to John's perspective. We get to inhabit the minds of men, women, and children, all convincingly done. This allows us to see how the other characters view John.
Who is John? What kind of man is he? Well, he is contemplative, mature, principled, modest, well-traveled, an ex-soldier, religious, tall, austere, handsome, from Crete. He is also a eunuch. The reader learns through the plot of the One for Sorrow why Eastern rulers employed eunuchs to run their administrations, and how eunuchs were made. We even get one suggested love scene for John.
The English is graceful and clear, the narration expert, the plotting solid, and the characters are believable. We get to meet the empress and emperor briefly. There is a very exciting finish to the story, and a nice summing-up for those not as clever as John, when he explains the events of the book to his "Watson". This book, and the series, is for lovers of historical fiction, for amateur historians, and for lovers of traditional mysteries.
These are the books in the John, Lord Chamberlain Mystery Series:
- One for the Sorrow
- Two for the Joy
- Three for a Letter
- Four for a Boy
- Five for Silver
- Six for Gold
- Seven for a Secret
- Eight for Eternity
- Nine for the Devil
- Ten for Dying
- Murder in Megara (reviewed on this site)
The climax of the story takes place in one of Istanbul's (Constantinople's) underground cisterns, the reservoirs for the city's water supply.
From the book's description:
In Byzantium, the capital of the 6th century Roman Empire, annual games are held to celebrate the founding of the city. Several courtiers, obliged by office to attend, idly watch the chariot races and the bear baiting from the imperial box. Suddenly they--and the crowd-are electrified as a magnificent bull surges into the arena. Those who worship Mithra make quiet reverance to the sacred animal while a trio of bull leapers enters in his wake.
John, Lord Chamberlain to the Christian Emperor, is among those surprised into breathing tribute. He soon receives a further shock: surely the lovely young girl vaulting the beast had once been his lover. Later, making his way home through the thronged streets, John stumbles over the body of his friend Leukos, Keeper of the Plate. There are plenty of witnesses: an Egyptian brothel keeper, a young mason working on the Church of the Holy Wisdom, a mad stylite, a henpecked innkeeper, and the bull leapers from Crete. Now duty and guilt demand that John discover the murderer...
Here are direct links to the book at Amazon.com.
Here are links to all the books in the John, Lord Chamberlain Mystery Series:
Please visit the authors' website which links to the Facebook page and Blog.
A wonderful precursor to reading this series is this episode of the history series Engineering an Empire on the Byzantine Empire: