Monday, May 23, 2011

The Judgment of Caesar by Steven Saylor (usual spoiler warnings apply)

I notice a disturbing trend in the Roma Sub Rosa series. The books seem to be getting shorter, and the print larger. I wouldn't care so much, except that I'm again disappointed.

The title says "judgment," but this book is really all about forgiveness (more about that later). Gordianus and Bethesda, along with the two little slave boys, Mopsus and Androcles, and the newest member of the household, Rupa, set off to Egypt to find a cure for Bethesda's mysterious illness. She is now convinced that only bathing in the Nile will save her. I think if she lived in our time she'd be one of those people who's really into alternative medicine.

But their ship gets attacked by Pompey's forces, and when he discovers that Gordianus is on board, well let's just say he promises there will be hell to pay. He's still holding a grudge for what Gordianus did in Rubicon. But though it looks bad, Gordianus doesn't have long to worry, as Pompey himself is soon killed by the orders of King Ptolemy's eunuch, Plothinus. Gordianus and Pompey's wife Cornelia look helplessly on.

But oh dear, I get ahead of myself. Before Pompey dies, Cornelia gives Gordianus a vial of poison, telling him basically that it would be better for him to kill himself than to face what Pompey's got in store for him. Nope, this bottle won't come back to haunt Gordianus later. No sirree. No blatantly obvious plot points here! Move along.

The best pic I could find of Cleopatra.
Okay, so she's no Liz Taylor. But I think
she'd be alright with a little makeup,
don't you agree?
Gordianus gets separated from Bethesda and the rest first when Pompey summons him so he can have his sweet, sweet revenge, and then winds up jumping ship and swimming ashore once Pompey is dead, and winds up actually cremating Pompey with the help of his old freedman, Philip. Trust me, this will come back to haunt us later. Bethesda finally decides to take her plunge into the Nile...and promptly disappears. No, really. We spend the entire book thinking she's dead, unless you're like me and skipped to the end and realized she wasn't. More on that later.

So now, Gordianus is miserable. He thinks his wife is dead, he still hasn't recovered from disowning Meto two books before, and now he's facing the fact that Caesar is in Egypt with Meto and somehow he's going to have to tell him his mother is dead. But the really strange thing, and this is where the book's believability really starts to break down for me, is that Caesar winds up inviting Gordianus to dinner and taking a really personal interest in trying to mend his relationship with Meto. At which point I started scratching my head and going, "what?".

So I should probably say that I've never really had a problem before with the way Saylor has his original characters interact with historical characters. It was always done just organically enough to be believable. Sure, I can buy Gordianus having a complicated, long term relationship with Cicero (okay, that sounded gayer than I really intended). He met Cicero at the start of his career before he hit the big time, and it worked. I could buy him working for Crassus. Sure, Crassus would hire a cheap nobody from the Subura to investigate a case he didn't really care about anyway. Anyone better would have cost him more money than he'd want to pay, no doubt. Him working for Pompey? That might have been a bit much, but since Pompey was looking to Cicero as an ally and while by this point Gordianus and Cicero had had more than their fair share of differences, I could still believe the idea of Cicero giving Gordianus a decent reference. So to speak.

Now, his interactions with Caesar before were mostly brief and occurring in the context of him visiting his son, and that worked fine. I do have a bit of a problem with Meto being portrayed so much as being Caesar's right hand man (not only helping him write his memoirs, but also acting as his spy), just because if Caesar had really had someone like that under him, we'd probably know about him. And as far as I know, we don't. I mean, I'm sure Caesar did have spies and probably an educated slave or freedman who helped him with his memoirs. But probably not the same person. But Meto's being so close to Caesar didn't bother me before either, because even though it was mentioned from time to time, it hadn't really become a major point around which the plot turned.

Except for now. Caesar is actually a full-blown character in his book, unlike the brief drive-bys we had before. And like I said, he takes way more interest in Gordianus' and Meto's father/son relationship than is credible to me. Like seriously, he's the dictator of Rome and seeking to essentially make Egypt a client state of Rome. I think he's got other things on his mind. His interest in Gordianus just seems contrived.

Ptolemy XIII
Things get even odder once we get to the characterization of Ptolemy. Now, I had always had the impression that Caesar pretty much wrote off Ptolemy once he was presented with Pompey's head. But he's not portrayed as doing so here, and instead is shown as really wavering back and forth between choosing him or Cleopatra, and finally choosing him! There's some hinting around at sexual attraction between the two, as well as the well-known affair between him and Cleopatra. This was so out of line with how his time in Egypt is usually portrayed that it took me by surprise.

Cleopatra and Caesar
Though perhaps in retrospect, it shouldn't have. Saylor seems to like taking characters we know little about, who were vilified by their enemies, and rehabilitating them. He did it to some extent with Catalina, he definitely did it with Clodia[1]. So the fact that he seems to have given Ptolemy something of the sympathetic underdog treatment perhaps shouldn't be too surprising here. But I was disappointed, because Cleopatra also was largely portrayed negatively by her enemies, and in his afterward he pretty much says she's a monster. But I don't really think she was necessarily any worse than any other ambitious ruler of her time. She certainly wasn't worse than Caesar, or Sulla. And I'm a bit tired of her always getting portrayed as the evil seductress, so I was a bit disappointed. And Caesar choosing Ptolemy over her at one point struck me as being really historically inaccurate. Sigh.

I probably should mention at this point that there actually is a murder mystery involved, and it concerns Meto as the suspect. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Gordianus forgives Meto as soon as he's in serious danger. I mean, there seriously was never any doubt that was going to happen, right? Gordianus is a softie. He's a softie practically even by modern day standards, and certainly by Roman ones. Which brings us circuitously back to what I see as the main theme of the book: forgiveness. Gordianus forgives Meto, Meto forgives Caesar for suspecting him[2]. Which brings me to...the ending. Oy vey. The ending.

Well. Gordianus sees what he thinks is Bethesda in the market, and persuades the rest of his family to leave Alexandria without him so he can track her down on his own. He winds up plunging into the Nile where his wife did...and dies? Passes out? Is reborn? Who knows. I think he meets his wife in the water and passes out and wakes up on the shore or something. It's all very spiritual and nonsensical and probably symbolic. Anyway, he's alive, his wife is alive and seemingly in much better health, and all is well. And I was sitting there feeling very confused.

So this is what I think. I think that Bethesda's illness was psychosomatic, brought on by stress over Gordianus' rejection of Meto. Then Gordianus forgave Meto, which enabled Bethesda to magically get well again. Or something. This kind of stuff makes my head hurt, annoys me, and makes me wish for a normal ending that makes sense. And seriously? Baptismal imagery? So overdone.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Mist of Prophecies by Steven Saylor (as always, spoiler warnings apply)

Boo. Hiss.

I didn't like this one as much as the others. First off, Gordianus cheats on Bethesda while she's sick (oh great, I sound like I'm reviewing a soap opera now), but that isn't really what bugged me most about this book. Nope, it was the continuity errors. Continuity errors.

Bethesda and Menenia "never got along?" Since when? I thought one of the reasons Gordianus liked Menenia was that she was good at handling the sometimes difficult Bethesda? When did that change? (When Saylor needed to create household tension.) Oh and Gordianus has never gone into debt? Er, I distinctly remember references to 'creditors' in the earlier books. Now, this one is a little more forgivable in that it seemed to come up more in his earlier career back when he used to live in the house on the Esquiline and before he became a little more prosperous (ie. before he had so many famous clients). And more recent books did mention him staying out of debt, so I sort of fanwanked that he had debt in his earlier career, but got out of it as things got better, then got back into it again when times got really tough in this book. Fine, but that's not the same as never having been in debt.

Both of the above though, I could forgive. But the last one, I can't. Clodia and Caelius get back together and are really in love. Not only does writing that line make me feel like I'm reviewing a soap opera again, but it is completely nonsensical. Caelius admitted to trying to poison Clodia twice in The Venus Throw. I just don't buy that Clodia would get back with a guy who you know, tried to kill her. Does. Not. Compute.

Cassandra and Ajax.
Has nothing to do with
this book except that
it has a character
named Cassandra in it.
But nice painting, no?
The rest? Well, Gordianus investigates the murder of a woman he had a brief affair with, Cassandra. Cassandra is not her real name, but it's the one everyone calls her, because she supposedly has visions. I don't know if I buy their affair or not. I can buy that Gordianus needed an escape, which seemed in large part an impetus for it. He's always had attractions to other women (and sometimes men), but has managed to control himself until now. I think Saylor does do a good job of showing the toll the civil war is taking on Rome. Even the rich women he visits in the course of his investigation are clearly on tough times and shown having to sell their dearest possessions just stay afloat or living in once-sumptuous mansions now in ill-repair.

His home life is tense as well. Things are tense because there's no money and there's the debts hanging over his head. There's trouble between him and Bethesda, hinted to be brought on by his rejection of Meto in the previous book. I kind of wish they had shown him telling them about that, because while it would have been soap opera moment to be sure, at least it would have been one I would have found more interesting. Hieronymus has moved in with them, and he sometimes entertains Gordianus, sometimes annoys him. I can see him being that kind of person, to be honest. Diana's baby son has seemed to have disappeared, which I could as another continuity thing, as he's just not mentioned. Now granted, he doesn't figure in the main plot at all but since there's more emphasis on his home life than in the previous books, it seems odd to not have him mentioned at all.

I like that Saylor was clearly trying to show more of influence women had in Roman society in this book, but it just felt overall sloppily written to me. Like he was just a bit off his game.

Last Seen in Massilla, by Steven Saylor (spoilers, as usual)

Last Seen in Massilia picks up the hanging thread of a cliffhanger that was at the end of Rubicon—what happened to Meto, who's been acting as a spy for Caesar?

Gordianus[1] receives a mysterious letter telling him that Meto has died in Massilia, so he goes to find out if this is really true. Of course he gets dragged into another mystery while in Massilia: was the girl he saw on a rock used for suicides pushed by the man chasing her, or was the man chasing her trying to stop her from jumping, which she eventually did?

For company he has his son-in-law, Davus, a character who I find incredibly boring most of the time. I like Bethesda and wish we saw more of her though understand why we don't; think Meto is quite interesting and wouldn't mind seeing things from his perspective (not going to happen, since the books are written pretty strictly from Gordianus' point of view); liked Eco as a kid but find him kind of boring ever since he got his voice back, and really don't know what to think of Diana at this point. She kind of seems to be whatever the plot requires her to be. But this is a tangent, as Davus is the only member of the family along on this trip. And like I said, I find him dull.

Modern-day Marseilles, called Massilia by the Romans
Anyway, we do learn that Massilia has an interesting tradition of the 'scapegoat,' which is that when times are tough (say due to being under siege by Caesar's forces), they can choose a person to absorb all of the sins of the citizens of the city and be ritually killed in order to appease the gods and save the city from ruin. Gordianus, with his tendency to befriend outcasts, befriends the current scapegoat of Massilia, a fellow named Hieronymus (presumably no relative of Bosch).

He also investigates the death of a woman he sees either get pushed or fall off of Sacrifice Rock, an important setting in the book which is also the place where the scapegoat is supposed to meet his ultimate fate.

There's lots of stuff in here about disguises and parents and children; those seem to be the major themes. But the biggest thing that happens in this book at the end is that Gordianus finds Meto alive and well...and disowns him. Because he can't stand his career as a spy.

Now what's odd is that Gordianus knew Meto was a spy since the last book, and he didn't seem so much angry to find that out, but worried. And he knows he's a spy all throughout this book as well, and yet doesn't seem angry, but worried. But I could buy that being allowed to think that he was dead was what really sent him over the edge. I don't think this is a decision that's going to sit well with him in the long run; the ending seems to hint at that.

Overall, I didn't like this book as much as the others, but I didn't dislike it either. I suppose I'd give it about 3 stars, if I was doing the rating thing. It felt like a transitional book to me for some reason, like somehow Saylor is taking the series in a different, less self-contained direction. You really couldn't get into this book without having read the previous ones, whereas some of the earlier books could stand better on their own.

[1] One of the things that has driven me quietly mad throughout this series is that we never learn Gordianus' praenomen. Surely he must have one? I thought all Roman men had a praenomen and a nomen at least.

Friday, May 20, 2011

thoughts on studying Latin

I'm studying Latin on my own right now and it's interesting to see what my strengths and weaknesses are. I find it much easier to go from Latin to English than from English to Latin. And I have a really hard time getting the order of the words right. That's actually my worst problem with English to Latin translation; I tend to use the correct words and cases and everything but in the wrong order!

Though as it turns out, because it's a highly inflected language, the word order isn't a crucial to the meaning as it is in English, though there is a standard one that is preferred. The textbook mentioned that different word orders might be used for emphasis, but didn't really go into detail. I looked it up on Wikipedia and they mentioned that in poetry they might use different word order for emphasis or to fit the words into the meter they want to use.

I'm curious about this subject, so if anyone out there can tell me what exactly different word orders in Latin might mean, do let me know.

Another thing is that I'm much better at translating exercises than straight up grammar exercises. When I'm translating a sentence, I'll generally get it right, but I won't necessarily be thinking "okay, dative here, genitive here, etc." I find it really hard to try to do that, actually. I just seem to figure out what makes the most sense given the context. Which mean that when I got to the exercises that just asked for word endings for different cases or wanted me to translate different cases alone without them being a whole sentence, I was pretty lost. Which means I'm obviously relying on context a lot.

I wonder how much I'm riding on the fact that I started learning Latin when I was 12 and my brain was still fresh and wet and sticky. I didn't feel like I remembered a lot explicitly (though I do remember how to conjugate to be, even though I haven't gotten to that part in the textbook yet), but I have the feeling I'm relying on a lot of subconscious knowledge right now that I don't even know I know. Very strange.

Oh and I switched textbooks, and it's kind of a mixed bag. Cambridge suited my learning style better, but didn't have an answer key for the main book, only the workbook, which meant I could never check my answers or know if I was translating things right. Wheelock's has an answer key, but it's a harder textbook for me to use because it's much more technical and presents a lot more material at once.

At some point I'd like to take an actual class, but that'll have to wait a while for personal reasons. And by that time, I'd probably have to take a placement test because a beginning class might be too easy for me at that point, assuming I'm able to stick with studying it on my own for a while.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rubicon, by Steven Saylor (warning: MASSIVE SPOILERS)

First, let me get the gushing squee out of the way.

Damn, that was good. 

I was not expecting to like this book so much, because I was already spoiled for the main plot twist, which is that the guilty party is...Gordianus himself.

So obviously I didn't have suspense concerning the culprit. But I did have suspense concerning motive. Gordianus isn't the sort of fellow to kill a guy in his own garden for the lulz. And his guilt was really pretty obvious if you knew all along that he was the one, since he was pretty guilt-stricken throughout the book. And the gods seemed to be torturing him with it, showing him all the people who were affected by the death of the guy he killed. And of course, he's forced to investigate his own murder. But what he's really doing is trying to find some documents in order to protect his son.

Anyway, the whole thing was very well done. It got me thinking about how important honor is in Roman society, and how that differs from more modern ideas of honor which also seems to come closest to Gordianus' idea of honor. Which is to say that Roman honor is basically like Klingon honor: it seems to be mainly about maintaining a certain image/avoiding embarrassment. Yes, I know I'm oversimplifying here but that's my take on it.

There's another kind of honor though; the kind that's not so much about worrying how other people will judge you, but how you will judge yourself; the whole question of whether or not you can face what you see in the mirror. It's classic shame vs. guilt.

Portraying Gordianus as someone with a freakishly modern viewpoint worked really well for this book, because it makes his whole moral dilemma completely believable. And there's a lot in here about how these are crazy times, the type of times that cause a man to act against his nature. He teams up with Tiro again (the two basically go on a road trip), and Tiro at a couple of points is quite willing to have a man killed and even does so at one point, which I think is supposed to mirror what Gordianus did in a sense, because before this book I never saw Tiro as a killer either.

This book also made me wish that Saylor went more beyond Gordianus' point of view sometimes, mainly because I'm finding Meto to be a very interesting character, and have since Catalina's Riddle. Eco has become sort of bland ever since he got his voice back, but Meto seems like one to watch. I think it would be cool if he switched POVs to Meto at some point, so he can take this series into the Augustan era. I don't think that's his plan, but it would have been interesting.

Anyway. *draws hearts*


I wonder what the world would be like now if Carthage had won the Punic Wars. I wouldn't be surprised if some writer or another hasn't speculated on that.

If anyone out there sees this and has an idea, feel free to tell me. I'd love to know!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Murder on the Appian Way, by Steven Saylor (spoilers)

I love Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series. Yes, Gordianus is far too modern in his attitudes for an ancient Roman, but Saylor's descriptions of ancient Rome are wonderful and make you feel like you're really there. And at least Gordianus' oddities are acknowledged in-universe, so there's some concession there to the fact that he often does things a typical Roman man and father would not have done.

A Murder on the Appian Way deals with the death of Publius Clodius Pulcher, a famous populist rabble-rousing politician of the late Roman Republic. There's a lot of foreshadowing of the Republic's fall in this book; especially in the early conversations Gordianus has with his daughter Diana.

The murder of Clodius sparks riots and the burning down of the Senate house. Gordianus is eventually approached by his widow, Fulvia, to investigate what happened and also to check if Marc Antony had anything to do with the murder. He also runs into Clodia again, who also wants to know what happened. However, he doesn't really commit to working for Fulvia, and winds up getting hired instead by Pompey Magnus, usually referred to within the book as "The Great One." Heh.

So Gordianus and his son (along with Gordianus' new slave, Davus), set off to the Appian Way to investigate what happened.  I'm not really going to get into the details of the investigation except to say that they eventually wind up being kidnapped, except for Davus, who is left for dead, and that while Milo was ultimately behind it, Cicero knew what had happened and let it happen (though he did convince Milo not to kill them).
Fulvia: first woman to ever appear on a Roman coin.

To which my reaction was "Whoa. Steven Saylor really hates Cicero!" He had certainly portrayed him as the epitome of the scummy lawyer in past books, with some justification. But I really hadn't thought that his portrayal of him could get any more unsympathetic, but clearly I was wrong. Which is interesting to me, since while Gordianus' and Cicero's relationship had been deteriorating for quite some time now, this really marks the end of good relations between them presumably, and I wonder what means for future books. While I can certainly understand Gordianus' (and probably Saylor's) problems with Cicero's methods, I think ultimately Gordianus and Cicero want the same thing: which is for the Roman Republic to stay a republic.  And we all know it's not going to for very long.

A few other items of note: we get introduced to Marcus Antonius for the first time in this book, and I was nerdily disappointed (and somewhat surprised) that Saylor has chosen to call him "Marc Antony." I figured if anyone was going to refer to him by his proper Roman name, it would have been Saylor, as he did so with Catalina after all (who's usually referred to as Cataline). Ah well. Most of the Marc Antony stuff seemed like obvious setup for future novels, including a somewhat shoehorned reference to a young Cleopatra.

Clodia Metelli, sister and possibly
other things to Clodius. Sort of the
Carrie Bradshaw of ancient
Rome, I suppose.
We also get a broken Minerva statue being used as a rather obvious metaphor for the broken Republic, complete with a detailed description of how it must have had an internal flaw that was invisible on the outside but that ultimately made it vulnerable enough to get broken where it did. Really, Saylor? That was rather anvilicious of you.

I don't mean to bash this book though; it was pretty good. And I always enjoy Saylor's take on Clodia. He manages to never quite settle the question of whether or not she and her brother were having "improper relations," while at the same time portraying her as a definitely lusty, but ultimately sympathetic character, who in this book was genuinely grieving for her brother. I liked the scene at the end when Gordianus delivers Clodius' ring to her; a nice touch.

Another thing I'd like to mention is that this book marks the reappearance of Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero's slave who was introduced in Roman Blood. He was an extremely likable character in that book and remains so here, and it was a pleasure to see him again (and to see that he'd finally been freed). Something about the way Saylor portrays him is just so huggable.