Written by Steven Saylor — 88BC, and a 22-year-old Gordianus, fresh from his voyage to see the seven wonders of the world, has left his hometown of Rome far behind and now lives in Alexandria. He is with his slave and lover, the beautiful Bethesda. Trouble is brewing in Alexandria and across Egypt. Rome threatens to invade and the king, Ptolemy, is too poor to raise an army to repel the invaders.
But Gordianus lives day-to-day and is largely unaffected by events around him. That is until one day when he awakes to find Bethesda has been kidnapped. It seems she has been mistaken for a woman who looks much like her and is reputedly the lover of a very wealthy man – one willing and able to pay a large ransom. Accompanied by another slave called Djet, Gordianus sets off on a dangerous journey along the Nile looking for Bethesda’s kidnappers before they realise they have the wrong person. After several hair raising events he discovers that the culprits are the notorious Cuckoo’s Gang, a band of outlaws who take what they want from whomever they wish. Gordianus is forced to go undercover as a pirate.
But the leader of the Cuckoo’s Gang, Artemon, has an audacious plan to steal the sold gold coffin of Alexander The Great and, now part of the gang, Gordianus is going to help him…
Raiders of the Nile is an episode in the long running and highly successful Roma sub Rosa series, which is 12 books in all. Gordianus is The Finder, in effect a private detective of the ancient world, and first made his debut in Roman Blood set in the time of the late Roman Republic where Gordianus is middle aged, wily and experienced, working with Cicero and avoiding the plots of Caeser and Crassus. These are among the best historical crime novels out there.
However, as Bernard Cornwell did with the Sharpe books, Steven Saylor has been charting earlier phases in Gordianus’ life, starting with The Seven Wonders, in order to explore how a callow youth was turned into what he later becomes. Raiders of the Nile is the second of these ‘prequels’. This is a difficult task to pull off, but the author manages it well. There are sufficient elements of the younger Gordianus’ character visible to be believable. He is resourceful and intelligent, but given to rash decisions and often makes mistakes. The butterfly that is The Finder has not yet fully emerged from the chrysalis, but nevertheless the book provides insight into this complex character.
Saylor’s greatest strength is his ability to seamlessly transport the reader back 2000 years. The descriptions of life in the ancient world are deceptively smooth. The sights, sounds and even smells of life 100 years before the birth of Christ are vividly painted. Saylor is has the knack of delivering an academic level of authenticity without being boring.
Gordianus is without doubt one of the finest historical detectives, he’s multi-layered and fascinating. Understandably Raiders of the Nile lacks the machinations and powerful historical characters of the later novels. By turns Raiders is fascinating, engaging, great fun and a page turner. If you’ve not yet met Gordianus it’s a good place to start.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars