One For Sorrow

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Byzantium, capitol of the 6th century Roman Empire, simmers a rich stew of creeds, cultures, and citizens with a sprinkling of cutthroats and crimes. John the Eunuch, Emperor Justinian's Lord Chamberlain, orders a Christian court while himself observing the rites of Mithra. Thomas, a knight from Britain, Ahasuerus, a soothsayer, and two ladies from Crete stir up events and old memories for John, who must ask how the visitors link to the death of Leukos, Keeper of the Plate. An Egyptian brothel keeper and a ...

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Byzantium, capitol of the 6th century Roman Empire, simmers a rich stew of creeds, cultures, and citizens with a sprinkling of cutthroats and crimes. John the Eunuch, Emperor Justinian's Lord Chamberlain, orders a Christian court while himself observing the rites of Mithra. Thomas, a knight from Britain, Ahasuerus, a soothsayer, and two ladies from Crete stir up events and old memories for John, who must ask how the visitors link to the death of Leukos, Keeper of the Plate. An Egyptian brothel keeper and a Christian stylite know more than they are telling....
In due course, John gets his man - and a love scene....

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"By nature, the historical mystery genre offers a wealth of opportunity for creative settings and characters. From Steven Saylor we have Gordianus the Finder, a clever detective in the ancient Rome of Pompey and Crassus. From Lynda S. Robinson, we have Lord Meren, the Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh in ancient Egypt. And now, joining these ancient sleuths we have John the Eunuch, the Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian in sixth century Byzantium. Previously featured in short stories, authors Mary Reed and Eric Mayer have released their first novel, One for Sorrow, featuring this unusual and intriguing character.
John is a middle-aged man who holds an important position in Justinian's Christian court; he is sort of like today's Chief of Staff. While Christianity has overtaken much of the empire, John is still a quietly practicing Mithraic. John is not a eunuch by choice; in fact, he still longs for his lover from years ago. When he tells his sad tale to a new friend, it is both horrifying and compelling. Even though he might seem to have lost some of his "manliness," John is a trusted and wise figure under the emperor, and is portrayed here as fully able to protect and defend.
The plot of One for Sorrow revolves around an unexplained murder. One of John's closest friends, Leukos, Keeper of the Plate (think treasury official) has been killed in a dirty alleyway. Could someone have murdered him for a precious religious relic? (Saints' bones and chalices seem to be everywhere.) A newcomer from Bretania seems to believe so.
Thomas, a knight from the court of King Arthur has journeyed to Constantinople to search for the Holy Grail. He is one of the last people to have spoken withLeukos before his death. John seems to trust the hearty soldier, but he appears too often in John's path for it to be coincidence. Then there is the ancient soothsayer Ahasuerus, who has been making a name for himself reading fortunes. Even the Empress Theodora may have been one of his clients. Why would Leukos, a professed and seemingly devout Christian, be visiting this fortuneteller at the run-down Inn of the Centaurs? And what about the brothel near the Inn? Was Leukos visiting a woman before he was murdered?
As John delves further into Leukos' final days, the path seems to split in many directions. Why does the Patriarch Epiphanios seem to be interfering in the investigation? And why does the murder of a young prostitute at the brothel seem to be tied in to the first murder as well?
For readers who enjoy historical fiction written by knowledgeable authors, One for Sorrow won't disappoint. In fact, the glossary at the back of the book will be essential for many of us who missed some classes in ancient history. For example, the unusual holy men called stylites play a role in this tale. And typical expressions from this period such as "Owls to Athens" are also explained in this glossary.
Even better, Reed and Mayer are able to create an interesting cast of characters and well-crafted plot. People like the stylites, the Madam, and palace servants are believably drawn and developed. And of course the bull leapers (women from John's past) are a fascinating and unique addition, and also add to John's character development. (Unfortunately, they disappear rather abruptly, one of the novel's weak points.) Certain events also help to flesh the story out, such as an ancientMithraic ceremony in which John's friend Anatolius is initiated into a higher rank of the ancient religion.
In the end, most readers will come away from One for Sorrow finding they enjoy the company of a clever eunuch. As the authors plan to continue John's stories, we can look forward to spending more time with an interesting new addition to the historical mystery world — John the Eunuch.
—Martha Moore, The Mystery Reader, 11/8/99"
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781890208424
  • Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2000
  • Series: John, the Lord Chamberlain Series
  • Pages: 316
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

After 1999's highly acclaimed first full length novel, One for Sorrow, the husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer extended the series with Two For Joy, Three For A Letter, Four For A Boy, and Five for Silver. In June 2003 Booklist Magazine named the John the Eunuch novels one of its four Best Little Known Series.

The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer had published several short John the Eunuch detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999's highly acclaimed first full length novel, One for Sorrow.

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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide



Everyone knows about the fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarian hordes. However, while the western portion of the empire passed from Roman control in 476 AD, the eastern part-often referred to as the Byzantine Empire- survived for nearly another millennium, until its capital of Constantinople was overrun by the Turks in l453.

The John the Eunuch mystery series unfolds during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565), on the cusp of the classical and medieval worlds. John lives at a time when paganism had all but lost its battle with Christianity but the glory of Rome was still much more than just a dim memory. In his attempts to restore the empire, Justinian not only successfully reconquered both Africa and Italy but also codified Roman law and rebuilt Constantinople so as to rival in the magnificence of its architecture ancient Rome itself. Yet the city's centerpiece was not a pagan temple but a Christian church, the Hagia Sophia.

John, who serves as Justinian's Lord Chamberlain, is called upon to solve some of the mysterious deaths which were not uncommon in this turbulent time of competing viewpoints. In One For Sorrow (535 AD) he investigates the death of a friend who was an official at the Great Palace, while also contending with a soothsayer and a traveler who claims to be on a quest for the Holy Grail. Two For Joy (537 AD) finds him attempting to find an explanation for the deaths of holy stylites who spontaneously burst into flame atop the pillars upon which they live, just as a religious zealot arrives at the gates of Constantinople, claiming supernatural powers and making political demands. In Three For A Letter (539 AD), John becomes involved in Justinian's plans to regain control of Italy when he is sent to a seaside estate to solve the murder of a young diplomatic hostage who was an heir to the Ostrogoth throne-and at the same time also protect the dead boy's sister. His task is further complicated by intriguing courtiers, automatons and a herd of fortune-telling goats. Four For A Boy (525 AD) is a prequel to the series, relating how John regained his freedom by solving the murder of a prominent philanthropist in broad daylight in the Great Church, as well as his first meetings with several series characters including Felix (here a rank and file excubitor), Egyptian madam Isis and the wine imbibing physician Gaius, not to mention a cast including street performers, courtiers, and the former actress Theodora, who was later to co-rule the empire with Justinian.


John the Eunuch is a tall, lean Greek, born around 495 AD. As a young man he attended Plato's Academy outside Athens but grew restless and left to become a mercenary. He fought in Bretania, where he developed a fear of deep water after seeing a colleague drown in a swollen stream. He also lived for a time in Alexandria and traveled with a troupe which recreated the ancient Cretan art of bull-leaping for Roman audiences. While seeking to buy silks for his lover in a border region of the empire, he strayed into enemy territory, was captured by Persians, emasculated and sold into slavery, purchased to serve at the Great Palace in Constantinople.

Having regained his freedom and eventually appointed Lord Chamberlain, John's official role is as chief attendant to the emperor. As part of his duties John oversees much of the palace administration and supervises court ceremonies. However, his real power lies in his close working relationship with Justinian, who depends upon his advice and, from time to time, his ability as an investigator. Unfortunately, John has attracted the enmity of Empress Theodora.

A man of simple tastes, John lives in a sparsely furnished house on the palace grounds. Although wealthy, he refuses to employ slaves or the customary bodyguard. He is fluent in four languages (cursing in Egyptian) but is not quick to share confidences in any of them. He has, however, been known to share his thoughts with the girl depicted in the mosaic on the wall of his study.

John is sometimes aided in his investigations by Felix, the Captain of the Excubitors (palace guards), his younger friend Anatolius (Justinian's secretary) and an elderly servant, Peter. John, like Felix and Anatolius, is a practicing Mithran and has attained the rank of Runner of the Sun. Like them, however, he must keep his beliefs secret since Mithraism is a proscribed religion.

John is a man of contradictions-a pagan serving a Christian emperor, a man of principle in a society whose corrupt institutions do not offer justice, someone who has been terribly wounded but has not descended into ruthlessness although he has been known to lapse into fits of anger and near madness, perhaps a result of urges he usually controls.

John appears in several short stories as well as the series of novels.



(l) John suffered castration as a young man. In what way has this affected his emotional and mental attitudes? How do you think you would react to this type of traumatic event? To what extent do the things that happen to us dictate "who we are" and to what extent can we decide "who we are" despite the things that happen to us?
(2) John was captured, mutilated and sold into slavery but has survived to become a man of great power. Yet he has not attempted to hunt down and punish those who wronged him. Why do you think he hasn't taken revenge? Should he? Would you?
(3) People sometimes assume that a eunuch must not be a "real" man and so would be unable to protect the people he loves or do "manly" things. What are your thoughts on this assumption? Can we in fact accomplish things that seem impossible when the need arises? Has this ever happened to you?
(4) Many things taken for granted in John's time - families selling their children into prostitution or slavery, for example - are morally repugnant to us. Yet these things are still going on l,500 years later. Do you think the world is becoming a better place? Will such conditions always be part of it? Does our society take for granted things that will appear morally wrong to people in the future? What do you think they would consider to belong to this classification?
(5) John does not always approve of aspects of his society. His views are sometimes more in line with modern day thinking. Is this realistic? How much does the society in which we live shape our views of what is right and wrong?
(6) Several characters in the books are practicing Mithrans living in a Christian court whose emperor has proscribed pagan religions. They must therefore follow their religion in secret. What parallels do you see with religious oppression today? Is it possible, like John and his friends, to follow individual beliefs and principles in a world that often seems to hold contrary views?
(7) As Lord Chamberlain, John the Eunuch is immensely wealthy but he prefers plain food and a sparsely furnished house. What does this tell you about him? Is wealth necessarily the measure of a person? What would you do if you were suddenly as rich as John?
(8) Empress Theodora is a very strong woman whose power is exceeded only by that wielded by her husband, Justinian. Some scholars believe her influence on her husband was so great that she was actually co-emperor. Today we see a few women serving as heads of state. Has the role of powerful women changed? Can you think of any women today who are like Theodora? Who would you choose to play her in a movie?
(9) In One For Sorrow, Ahaseurus claims to be able to foretell the future while in Three For A Letter the same talent is ascribed to a herd of goats. Fortune-telling and horoscopes remain very popular today. Why do you think that is, considering how much we now know about the world thanks to modern science? Do you think we can foretell the future by astrology or other means? Do you know of any examples where this actually happened?
(l0) The innkeeper and his wife in One For Sorrow are a good example of a marriage that began in high hopes and ended in sorrow. Given the history of the couple as related in the book, could a different course have been taken? If they had asked you for advice on their marriage, what advice would you have given them?
(ll) In One For Sorrow, John is driven to find his friend's murderer even though the emperor has ordered him to stop the pursuit. Do we have a higher duty to our family and friends than to those in power?
(l2) Anatolius, who appears in all the books, is often hasty in his actions. What advice would you give him if you were his parent? Would it be any different from parental advice you would give to a young man or woman today?
(l3) At the end of Two For Joy, Michael's true identity is revealed. It has been said that we all wear public masks. Do you think this is true? What would you have done in Michael's situation?
(l4) In Two For Joy, Lucretia becomes a runaway wife. Given her situation as described in the book would you have felt the same way? Would you have stayed in the marriage? Why?
(l5) Justinian exercised absolute power over the life and death of everyone in his empire. If you were the emperor what sort of civil and legal reforms would you order carried out immediately? If you could only order one reform, what would it be, and why?
(l6) In Three For A Letter, the Ostrogoth twins have been brought up in very unusual circumstances, separated from their blood relatives and far from home. What sort of effect do you think this would have on children? How could it be counteracted?
(l7) Much of Three For A Letter is set on Zeno's country estate and exhibits a dreamlike quality. Have you ever felt as if you were living in a dream, whether good or bad?
(l8) Were you surprised to learn that the Roman Empire had continued for 1,000 years after its "fall"? Why do you think so little popular attention has been paid to its later history while there have been many books and movies about its earlier times?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2012

    Interesting historical period - not that well-written

    John is an interesting character and the setting is certainly unusual but I couldn't really get into it because it wasn't that well written.

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