My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have not read the first volume in this series, Murder in Absentia, and it was not necessary to have done so to enjoy the second one. This book’s strengths are world building and the seamless integration of the world into the mystery plot. I also got the sense that the characters are becoming more well-rounded as the series progresses.
My knowledge of Roman culture is superficial, and so I found the world of Egretia to be fascinating, from the Roman Numerals that number the chapters, to the sporting and debate contests, to the theology of the Numina themselves. I suspect a classicist might be bothered by the liberties taken with magic in Egretia the way I am by silly neuroscience in science fiction, but for the intelligent lay reader, the author’s research presents a pleasing and believable world. The magic fits well with the materials and knowledge available to its inhabitants. And I loved that the climax of the book came at a trial with a famous orator showing off his skills.
Unfortunately, for me, the plot took a little too long to get going. I picked the book up and put it down several times before I really got into it. Felix and his sidekick-and-sometime-love-interest, Aemilia, spend too much time investigating haunted houses in which nothing much happens except that the reader is given a detailed description of the truly gross and horrifying demise of the former occupants. I think that for such scenes, less would be more, and I found it somewhat difficult to suspend my disbelief that there wouldn’t be more swift and serious consequences–both legal and social–for a landlord whose tenants died such gruesome, unexplained deaths.
So in these early sections of the book I found the romantic subplots a bit more interesting than the main plot, in particular Felix’s relationship with Cornelia. I was a bit surprised to learn in the bonus material that Cornelia, a widow and Aemilia’s mother, was only a few years older than Felix himself. The love triangle between Felix, Cornelia, and Aemilia was something new that I haven’t seen much of in fantasy or anywhere else.
I was glad that the female characters were not simply ciphers or cliches, but I still felt that they could have had more depth. Felix was a decent narrator and came across as thoughtful and level-headed, but his voice was a little generic. He was neither a relentlessly logical Sherlock Holmes nor as introspective or passionate as I might have liked. He seemed only intermittently capable of strong feelings, and I wondered about the origins of his ability to compartmentalize them. The allusions to his lost love, Helena, are tantalizing but very incomplete. Perhaps here is where I would have benefitted from reading the first book the most. Overall this is a well-done series with an intriguing protagonist. I am interested in reading more!
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