Steven Saylor – The House of the Vestals (1999)

Although the sixth in terms of publication date, this collection of short stories is actually the second chronologically in the Roma Sub-Rosa series, featuring Gordianus the Finder. Saylor explains in his Introduction that the collection is intended to fill in some gaps as to what Gordianus was doing between 80BC and 72BC – the dates of the first and second novels, and also to give the background and first appearances of various series characters and locations. Given this it is obviously probable that this book will mean a great deal more to series aficionados than to newcomers like myself.

Having said this, and additionally not being the greatest fan of short stories, I have to say that these stories, while light-weight, have considerable charm. Not having read any of the full-length mysteries I do not know if this description would also apply to them. Here though Saylor’s historical touch is light – historical characters such as Cicero and Cataline appear, but the details of Roman politics are avoided and details of Roman life are only manifested when relevant to the story. Both these facets are probably necessary to the Short Story form, and any more substantial approach would demand more detail and analysis. The individual plots are also fairly light. Saylor explains in the Historical Notes which are appended to the back of the book that he always had some ancient source
for each story. In some cases this amounted to a mere mention of a character in Cicero, in others to a transcription of a story which actually appears in
Classical texts (as in the case of The Tale of The Treasure House which comes from Herodotus), in others taking an inspiration from real-life events. The standard of the stories is generally fairly high though the quality of plot does vary – The Disappearance of the Saturnalia Silver and King Bee and Honey are among the best; the former makes very effective use of Roman customs and mind-sets, and the latter is a tale which appealed to my sense of humour.

Even though this book will undoubtedly mean a great deal more to those familiar with the series it is a charming collection in its’ own right and has certainly made me wish to read one of Saylor’s full-length mysteries.

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