The Queen of the Night by Paul Doherty. If Marilyn Todd’s Claudia Seferius sometimes needs to hide her activities from Roman investigators, Doherty’s Claudia would be one of those seeking out her namesake. In 314 AD Rome, this Claudia works as a spy for the Empress Helena, who, shall we say, takes an active interest in the management of the empire by her son, Constantine. The author sticks to his usual formula of several concurrent plots: a troop of retired soldiers who served in Britannia are being brutally murdered by a mysterious woman, the sons and daughters of wealthy Romans are being kidnapped and held for ransom by a masked gang, and a perfectly preserved young Christian girl is found buried in Claudia’s uncle’s garden.
I admit I’ve become somewhat tired of this recurring structure to all of Doherty’s books, but perhaps I’ve just read too many of them in a short period of time. This title, despite an ending that wraps things up a bit too neatly, is a step above the recent others due to two things: the interesting cast of supporting characters and the setting of Rome under Emperor Constantine and his mother. Claudia lives at her uncle Polybius’ tavern, is in love with a champion gladiator Murranus, but flirts with Burrus, a German mercenary who’s Captain of Helena’s bodyguard, and also works with Sylvester, the primary priest in the Christian community. None of these characters are one-dimensional and their interactions with Claudia add depth to the story. Furthermore, the activities in this book take place a mere two years after Constantine converted to Christianity and defeated Maxentius to assume the crown of the Western Roman Empire. His place on the throne is not yet entirely secure and there is still the matter of Licinius, Emperor in the East. Also, after centuries of persecution, the new Edict of Milan allowed Christianity to chip away at the influence of the state religion and old Roman pantheon. The changing political and religious landscapes make for a wonderfully complex environment in which a spy like Claudia will thrive.
This is not the first book in the series and although I am curious about the origins of the characters, I’m not sure if I’ll go back and read the others, at least not for a while.