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Reed and Mayer combine the scholarship of Steven Saylor with the humor of Lindsey Davis. Starred review in Booklist 12/00.
It is now two years after One For Sorrow and John the Eunuch, Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor Justinian, is faced with a new and byzantine problem: why are Constantinople's holy stylites bursting into flames as they stand atop their pillars? His investigations are hampered by a pagan philosophy tutor from his youth and a ...
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Reed and Mayer combine the scholarship of Steven Saylor with the humor of Lindsey Davis. Starred review in Booklist 12/00.
It is now two years after One For Sorrow and John the Eunuch, Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor Justinian, is faced with a new and byzantine problem: why are Constantinople's holy stylites bursting into flames as they stand atop their pillars? His investigations are hampered by a pagan philosophy tutor from his youth and a heretical Christian prophet whose ultimatums threaten to topple the Empire.
Then murder strikes close to home and John has only days to find a solution before he, his friends, his Emperor, and the city itself are destroyed. The sumptuous halls of the Great Palace and the riot-torn streets are filled with the same danger and deception. A colorful cast of characters that includes a runaway wife, servants and soldiers, madams and mendicants, a venomous court page and a wealthy landowner or two — not to mention John's bete noire, the Empress Theodora — adds texture to this rich, exotic tale of sixth century life and mysterious death.
Where had the old man gone now?
A storm was moving in from the Sea of Marmara and prudent men should long since have headed home. Irritated, John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, tossed aside the skewer with the charred remnants of his simple meal of grilled fish and scanned the small colonnaded forum again.
Looking around through a throng of hawkers, loiterers, roughly dressed laborers, and clusters of dusty pilgrims, John quickly located the missing man. He was possibly the only living person in the entire city wearing an elaborately folded himation although numerous antique statues within its confines displayed fine examples of the same outmoded style of clothing.
John sighed. While it was true that Philo had journeyed far beyond his native Athens, this was his first visit to Constantinople. Under John's watchful eye he had spent the afternoon among the city's wonders, gawking and dawdling through its busy streets like a white bearded child. Unfortunately, it seemed he was also as trusting as a child, for he had now fallen into conversation with three young ne'er-do-wells sporting beards and mustaches after the Persian style.
John strode quickly through the gang of gulls fighting raucously over the scraps of his discarded fish. At the sight of his lean, sumptuously-robed figure and unmistakable military bearing, the three young men sauntered away.
Philo, however, was not so impressed by his former student.
"I was just about to ask that pleasant gentleman if hehadany news from Khosrow's court. Word of my colleagues, perhaps," he said peevishly.
"They wouldn't know anything about the Persian court. They aren't Persians," John informed him. "They're members of the Blue faction. That's just the way they dress. They'd put a knife in your ribs as soon as look at you. This isn't the Academy, Philo. You must always be on your guard here. Always."
The crowd in the forum thinned rapidly as the storm neared land. Vendors complained loudly to each other as they doused their grills prior to setting them up again in some convenient portico offering shelter against the wavering curtain of rain advancing across the sullen swells. A freshening breeze dispersed the usual smells of commerce, a blend of fish and apples tinged by exotic spices mixed with the sour reek of spilled wine and sweat.
"We must go home now," John told his charge, "unless you want to get soaked."
"I've spent so many years in the desert, I wouldn't mind a little rain. But that column over there, it's home to another of your holy pillar sitters, isn't it? Perhaps we can discover how long the demented creature has been up there." Philo darted off again without waiting for John's reply.
The rough granite pillar standing in the middle of the forum rose to the height of several men. The ladder propped against its side and the empty baskets at its base gave mute testimony to offerings recently sent up to the occupant of the platform.
When John reached him, Philo was examining what appeared to be a misshapen coin. "It was lying in the dirt," he explained.
John nodded. "It's a pilgrim token. Acolytes make them from the earth around the pillar. Tokens like that are said to have powerful curative powers, so the faithful buy them at quite high prices."
"As high as these stylites sit, perhaps? They support quite a thriving industry, don't they?" Philo took a step back and craned his neck to gaze upwards.
The tangled hair and beard of the skeletal man perched above were streaming in the wind. So slight was the stylite's body that he looked as if he would be carried away by its force were it not for the heavy chains of penance weighing him down.
Two fat, cold raindrops broke against the back of John's thin hand. Others quickly followed. As they hit the ground they stirred up dust to mix with the sharp smell of animal dung and the briny tang of the sea. From nearby came the odor of freshly baked bread.
"We can discuss stylites once we're out of the storm," John said. "We can't linger here."
With obvious reluctance, Philo left the foot of the pillar. Light faded from the suddenly chilly air. From a church nearby came the drifting ebb and flow of chanting—or perhaps it was just the sound of the wind groaning among the colonnades edging the forum. A loose shop awning whipped upwards by a stronger gust and the warning patter of rain on tiled roofs heralded the approaching downpour.
John glanced back and caught a glimpse of the stylite outlined against dark clouds. He would not care to be standing up there in such weather. As if in response to the thought, a sheet of wind-driven rain swept across the forum. John grabbed a loose fold of Philo's voluminous clothing and hurried him faster across the rain-slick cobbles.
Philo's outraged protest at being handled in such an undignified manner was drowned by a ground- shuddering thunderclap shockingly close by. The rain quickened to a choking deluge as if an angry deity had picked up the sea and emptied it out onto the city.
Through the roar of the storm and the ringing in his ears John heard shouting and screams. Someone's been hit by lightning, he thought immediately. Then he realized he no longer grasped Philo's robe.
"Philo!" He turned back, convinced for an irrational instant that his companion had been struck. But Philo was a few paces away, staring up, shielding his eyes from the rain.
Others, heedless of the downpour, also looked toward the heavens, pointing. As his hearing recovered from the thunderclap, John could discern, amid the onlookers' curses and cries of terror, a frenzied, metallic clanking.
Atop the pillar, the stylite flailed his arms wildly, their motion whipping his chains against the platform's railing. The man's arms were on fire.
Even as John grasped the fact, rivulets of flame ran greedily across the stylite's robe. Glowing patches blossomed and spread in the man's straggling beard. A small dark shape—a rat—scuttled to the platform's edge and fell over.
The burning man tried to dowse the blaze, slapping at his chest. He began screaming only when his matted hair burst into an incandescent halo around his head.
The onlookers fell silent, horror etched on their faces.
The stylite's shrieks did not diminish as he careened around the platform, trying to escape the engulfing flames. Now he was a ghastly silhouette in a fiery nimbus. Sparks swirled away in the wind each time he struck the railing.
At last his legs gave way and he crumpled. His shrieks ended abruptly, leaving only a faint sound, a hissing and popping akin to the noise made by damp wood burning, discernible under the onslaught of the downpour. Mercifully, wind-swirled smoke obscured the platform.
John shivered as a sudden freezing gust of wind carried a familiar smell to him. For an instant, it made him think of street vendors. Then he realized why. It was the unmistakable odor of roasting flesh.
* * *
"Master! Thank the Lord you're home safe!"
Peter, John's elderly servant, stepped shakily away from the heavy nail-studded door. John entered, stamping soaked boots on the hall's tiled floor, closely followed by a grumbling Philo.
In the trembling light of Peter's oil lamp, the servant's lined face resembled those of mummies John had seen in Alexandria, their huge eyes blank rather than serene, as if terrified at the prospect of entering the afterworld.
Something was troubling Peter. "Ah, master," he lamented, "I fear I have just witnessed the beginning."
Philo closed the heavy door, abruptly muffling the rush of rain.
"The beginning? Of what, Peter?" John asked.
"Of the passing away of the world," was the cryptic reply.
"I shall be passing away myself if I don't get dry," complained Philo. Indeed, his garment was so sodden that he seemed barely able to drag himself up the narrow wooden stairs under its weight.
The air of the kitchen, warmed by a glowing brazier, carried a comfortingly familiar faint odor of onions and boiled poultry—and before long the dog-like smell of wet wool.
John hung his dripping cloak near the brazier. He glanced at the two aging men, Philo trembling from the chill, Peter obviously terrified, and he felt that stabbing awareness of mortality that more commonly beset him when he lay awake in the middle of the night.
"What precisely was it that you saw, Peter?" John went on more for Philo's benefit than to cheer Peter, "It must have been truly terrifying to upset a tough old camp cook like yourself."
"Please do try to be brief, if you would be so kind." Philo warmed his hands. "We've just had quite a shock ourselves."
John had tactfully left room near the brazier, but Peter evidently preferred to remain by the doorway. His gaze seemed inexorably drawn to the fogged rectangular panes of the kitchen window.
"It was this way, master. I had retired to my room," Peter finally began, "for I like to perform my devotions there. You can see all the crosses on the rooftops and the dome of the Great Church catches the light of the setting sun. A glorious sight it is too. But today the window panes were streaked with rain and darkness seemed to arrive earlier than usual."
He paused briefly to collect his thoughts.
"I had just began to sing a hymn," he went on. "It's a particular favorite of mine for it was written by the emperor himself. Then I heard a cry, a wailing that turned to a terrible keening as if some mighty hand had torn open the doorway to Hell and the lamentations of the damned were issuing forth."
"It's very windy," muttered Philo.
Peter appeared not to hear. "I peered out of my window," he continued. "What with it getting so dark and rainy, at first all I could see was the light shining from the dome of the Great Church. Then I began to pick out other bright flickerings here and there around the city. They were much brighter than torches, more like bonfires.
"And that seemed to me to be very strange, because the rain was still pouring down. It's such weather as Noah must have seen." The elderly man drew a deep breath. "It's buildings set on fire by lightning, I thought. Nothing unusual in that. But several at once? I feared that the whole city would be going up in flames, and my master and his guest out in the streets. But then the rain shifted and I could see the nearest fire more clearly. And I saw ..."
The old man's gaze flickered up to the kitchen ceiling as his voice faded. His hand traced the sign of his religion.
"What was it you saw, Peter?" John persisted gently.
"The fire ... it wasn't a burning building. It was hanging above the rooftops, up in the sky. And in the middle of the flames I could see the dark figure of a man."
Peter swayed and his legs seemed to give way. John leapt forward and caught his servant's shoulders, but as he lowered the limp body gently to the kitchen tiles Peter's haggard face turned ashen and his eyes closed.
"Mithra!" John muttered.
As he bent over the unconscious man it occurred to him that Peter must have seen the stylite he and Philo had observed. Burning like a torch, distorted by the rain-streaked window of his room, the sight must have been enough to frighten him almost to death.
"I'm going for a physician," John told Philo.
* * *
Outside, the rain was slackening. John did not waste time seeking help at the barracks across the square from his house. Gaius, the palace physician, lived some distance across the grounds but would arrive quickly if John personally summoned aid.
When John attended the Academy, Philo had constantly chided him about preferring its running paths to the sheltered walkways where students and teachers strolled serenely while engaged in leisurely debates.
"Perhaps you should leave us for a while, John," Philo had once counseled him. "Go out into the world. Run until you have tired your body. Then you will be more prepared to use your mind."
The words echoed in John's memory as he loped rapidly along meandering paths through the earthy smell of rain-soaked shrubbery.
Hair hanging in dripping rat tails and soaked to the skin, he presented a startling sight to the dark-haired servant girl who answered his frantic pounding on the physician's door.
She peeked out in terror. "He cannot assist you, excellency," she quavered, "He is engaged. That is to say, he is not here. He was summoned to see the emperor."
The distressed girl glanced over her shoulder into the murky depths of the house. John had noted the fresh bruise under one eye. It did not surprise him. Gaius was surly when intoxicated.
"Engaged in entertaining Bacchus, you mean!" John snapped, cursing that it would be this of all nights the otherwise competent physician had chosen to drink himself into a stupor. He was certain Gaius was lying in an addled heap inside, but even if he had hauled the physician out bodily, in such a condition he would be of no value to any patient.
Reining in his temper, John apologized to the girl for his abruptness and prepared to depart. "If you are able to tear your master away from his goblet," he said as he turned to go, "and get him back on his feet, be so kind as to impress upon him that there is a dying man who needs his assistance. At the Lord Chamberlain's house."
"The Lord Chamberlain ... oh ..." The girl gave a stricken moan.
* * *
John was not a man who believed in oracles or prophecies, but, as he rapped on his house door, he experienced a chill as if a cold draught had found a crack in his mental armor and penetrated to his soul. He abruptly knew, with an absolute and terrible certainty, that Peter was dead. So he was surprised to find his servant sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of watered wine.
"Master," Peter reproached him, his voice weak but steady. "You should not have gone for help. You must have forgotten that I am the servant."
John looked at Philo.
"Remarkable; isn't it?" smiled his erstwhile tutor jovially. "When you insisted on running heedlessly off as usual, I gave the matter some consideration. Then I recalled that curious token I found beside the stylite's pillar. You'd mentioned it was of the sort used by the faithful as a medicinal remedy. I wasn't certain how to administer it, so I crumbled some of it into a cup of wine."
He paused, enjoying the telling of his story. "I managed to get Peter to take a few swallows of the mixture. You see the result."
It was indeed a remarkable transformation. Peter was still pale, but he was perfectly lucid and his hand barely shook as he lifted his cup.
"Thank Mithra," breathed John.
Peter's lips tightened. "Master, I would not call on that deity of yours," he frowned, "and especially not on this night, not now. Not after what I witnessed."
John sat down on a stool beside the servant. "What do you mean, Peter? And what exactly did you see? Was it a man on fire? There is doubtless a commonplace explanation for that unfortunate incident. We saw it ourselves."
Peter set down his cup on the scarred table top and looked at John, absolute certainty in his eyes.
"There is no need to seek an explanation, master, no. For what else could it have been but an archangel in his fiery chariot, returning to judge this sinful world?"
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.
SUGGESTED TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
WARNING: INCLUDES SPOILERS
(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?
Posted December 9, 2008
Everyone living in sixth century Constantinople is shocked when three stylites sitting on their perches suddenly go up in flame. Caesar Justinian assigns Lord Chamberlain John to investigate. John finds little evidence that explains what happened. However, he eliminates spontaneous combustion from within the bodies of the dead men as an option as the corpses¿ insides were not roasted. <P> The Emperor sends John to meet with a heretic, Michael, at the healing Shrine of Michael. John is shocked when Michael demands more than just an audience with Justinian I. Michael wants to be named the Patriarch and the Emeperor¿s co-ruler. John wonders if Michael is linked to the deaths of the three stylites since the latter boasts of a cleaning fire. John continues his inquiries as Michael¿s fame and following grow geometrically and are becoming a threat to Caesar. <P> TWO FOR JOY is a powerful and insightful look at the Roman Empire through a mystery that brings to life the capital, its ruler, and its people. The story line is fast-paced and loaded with a feel for the era. John is everyone¿s favorite eunuch as his star shines in this novel like it did in his delightful debut (see ONE FOR SORROW). <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.