The Seven Wonders
Steven Saylor returns readers to the world of Ancient Rome and the adventures of Gordianus the Finder with "The Seven Wonders," a novel comprised of eight closely interlocking short stories (plus prelude and epilogue).
Gordianus is a sort of private detective, though in the time and place where he lives--Rome, more than two centuries before Christ, just as the Republic is about to swing into Empire--there is no such thing as the modern gumshoe. Still, Gordianus brings the essential tools of the private eye to his trade: Keen observation and a talent for deduction.
Since the publication of "Roman Blood" in 1991, Saylor’s hero has been solving murders and other mysteries in various precincts of the ancient world. Scattered throughout the twelve novels’ previous volumes in the "Roma Sub Rosa" series (including two earlier collections of Gordianus short fiction) are references to a youthful journey that took the Finder to the original Seven Wonders and to Alexandria, where he met his beloved wife, Bethesda. With this volume, which flashes us back to Gordianus at the age of 18, Saylor is able to honor the established mythos of his mystery series and fill in the gaps, all while delighting the reader anew with his meticulous research and his ability to make long-vanished cities and ways of life reappear on the page. These stories cover a lot of ground--literally, with Gordianus and his traveling companion Antipater setting out from Rome to venture all about the known world, from Greece to Babylon and into Egypt.
The mysteries in the new book vary from old-school procedurals (there’s even one installment that features a local superstition about a ghost, a ramshackle ruin, and a secret tunnel used by a killer in disguise) to spine-tingling mysteries that can only be called otherworldly. Given the genre, it’s a practical necessity that each of the Seven Wonders presents Gordianus with a new puzzle to solve: Murder and intrigue at The Temple of Artemis; conspiracy and assassination at Olympia, home of the Great Statue of Zeus (and the story takes place during the Olympic Games, no less!); a mystery that threatens the pride of a nation in Rhodes, site of The Colossus (a giant statue made of bronze); and, in the heart of Egypt’s greatest monument, a brush with The Divine.
There’s more going on here than a mystery of the moment with each new story, though. The novel includes elements that tie everything together, including an impending war between Rome and King Mithridates of Pontus, and the nagging little matter of why Gordianus’ tutor, Antipater of Sidon, has faked his own death and set out on a tour of the Seven Wonders under the assumed name Zoticus of Zeugma.
This being a Steven Saylor novel, there’s a weight of veracity to the details. Zeugma was a real town in what is now Turkey; Antipater really was a celebrated poet in the second century BC; Mithridates proved a determined foe and took on no less than three of Rome’s greatest military leaders during the Mithridatic Wars. Moreover, like a hidden prize, Saylor invests in his novel a bit of scholarly speculation as to who first created the list of the Seven Wonders, when, and why.
To top it all off, there’s a broad streak of humor running through the book, which surfaces in each story starting with the titles. "The Return of the Mummy" has horror movie connotations in modern usage, but Saylor finds an alternate meaning that turns the phrase into a pithy, punchy little pun. The title "Styx and Stones" heralds our hero’s arrival at the ruins of the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon. And then there’s "O Tempora! O Mores! Olympiad!," a title that would surely have tempted Carl Orff to set it to thunderous music.
Fans of the "Roma Sub Rosa" series will be gratified at Saylor’s attention to the minutiae of the fictive Gordianus universe; those who enjoy deeply historical novels will similarly utter hosannas of praise and delight for the author’s mastery of the real world into which that fictional universe is so deftly tucked.