‘Our city may be named after the regal birds that grace our shores, but our people march on squid.’
Egretia is Ancient Rome, but Ancient Rome in a parallel universe where magic is real. This is historical urban fantasy at its best and it will appeal to all who have enjoyed the works of Lindsey Davis, Rosemary Rowe, Steven Saylor, David Wishart, Ruth Downie, Jane Finnis and a handful of other authors who have set their whodunit solving heroes lose in a Roman setting. But Assaph Mehr‘s hero, Felix the Fox, has both the advantage and the disadvantage of living in a world where magic is real. He has some small command over it himself, but he is up against those who know much more powerful spells than he does.
Then story opens with Felix being asked to look into the strange death of a local official’s son. It turns out an ancient and powerful magic had to be involved and Felix has to call on the knowledge, skill and ability of several friends and enemies to try to get some idea of what is going on. Secret cabals and ancient manuscripts, death curses and pretty actresses, sea voyages and gladiatorial games, mysterious prophecies and mythical beasts that are real in his world, all play their part in helping Felix track down the reason the young man died.
‘I am not usually afflicted by bouts of honour and disposing of the bodies in the nearest sewer would have been quicker, but I have seen enough vengeful shades of the dead not to want one associated with my home.’
This is a well written book with a well developed and believable world. The author has clearly spent a lot of time researching into Ancient Rome and then taking the history and using it as a brilliant raw resource to craft his own landscape of an alternative Ancient Mediterranean world. It is not only Ancient Rome we see on display in Egretia, but Ancient Greece (Hellica) and Egypt (Mitzrana) as well. The characters are very well painted into the background scenery, even those we only meet in passing like Crassitius, the lanista who hires Felix a bodyguard gladiator, have their own personalities well shaped and on show, the result is a very solid and totally credible world.
The pace is well managed, a little slow perhaps at the beginning due to some scene setting, but quickly picking up to a pleasing clip which is then maintained throughout the rest of the book. The story has some extremely intriguing twists and turns and I would be telling fibs if I were to try to claim that I saw the final denouement coming in advance. To make the whole even more of a delight, the book is lightly garnished with touches of humour.
‘She tried to snatch her hand back, but found it bound to the table with the shimmering tracery holding her wrist tight.’
My main criticism of the book is in the earlier pages when the amount of information delivered almost turns into a lecture. Correction, it does turn into a lecture at a couple of points. A slightly less heavy hand would have created a better impression from the off, but I have to say it is swiftly forgotten once the book gets going. The other issue I feel which was skated close to, but never quite breached, was the limits on the magic Felix could command. On a couple of occasions it did brush very lightly against being a bit too convenient that he just happened to have a spell that could do what was needed.
Overall, I loved this book. Anyone who, like me, has hunted out just about every author of Roman whodunits or who loves urban fantasy with an alternative historical twist, will want to read this.
Those who would like to can obtain a copy of Murder in Absentia here.