It has been a few years since I’ve read any Steven Saylor. I read the original sequence of Gordianus novels, from Roman Blood through The Triumph of Caesar and enjoyed them immensely. Then I read the first of his Rome novels, and was very disappointed. So I was happy to see that there is a new Gordianus novel.
This one takes place in Alexandria and environs, when Gordianus is 22 years old. It is very different in style and tone from the preceding novels: Gordianus is still wet behind the ears; he is not yet married to Bethesda; he has not begun to work for the Roman ruling class; and he is in a very different environment from Rome. These differences do not help the novel: one of the attractions of the Gordianus of the original series was that he was cynical and jaded, and knew Rome like the back of his hand. A fresh-faced Gordianus, prone to rookie mistakes, is just not as entertaining. More than that, this story is not as believable as most of the others, and has a sort of mechanical aspect to it. For example, the sequence leading up to Gordianus’ arrival at the bandit camp would certainly make for a good action movie scene, but as written fiction it just fell flat, and seemed contrived.
On the other hand, Saylor does a nice job at the end of the story, with a couple not entirely predictable plot twists.
One problem with the novel, common to all prequels, is that you have a very definite idea from the beginning of who is not going to die: that is, any character that appears in the earlier (but chronologically later) stories will survive in this story. This eliminates a pretty major source of suspense. My advice to series novelists: never write prequels. And that goes double here, because Saylor has so far neglected to write the final book in the Gordianus series: the one that deals with the assassination of Caesar. So, Steven Saylor, get cracking.