The Fire Waker by Ben Pastor. This is a complex, well-written mystery set near the end of the reign of Emperor Diocletian. With the enormous expansion of the Roman Empire, Diocletian decided to divide the realm into four separate parts, each with its own capital. The goal was to decentralize governmental bureaucracy away from central Rome and bring it closer to militarily important frontier regions. Although this goal was reasonably achieved, when it came time for the next generation of emperors to assume power, the political in-fighting that characterized Rome throughout its history returned and eventually led to civil war.
It is just before this tumultuous transition period occurs that Pastor’s second book featuring Aelius Spartianus takes place. Spartianus is a colonel in the cavalry on assignment with Diocletian’s court to be his envoy to the other three rulers, to research and write histories of previous emperors, to report on the execution of the Edict of Maximum Prices (an anti-inflationary measure that summarily failed) and to investigate any unusual events that might have political ramifications. Persecutions of Christians were still rampant and so when Spartianus hears of a miracle worker called Agnus the Fire Waker and his deaconess Casta, he attempts to seek them out. However, his official duties as envoy take him to the court of Maximian in the city of Mediolanum, where he discovers the murder of a local judge. Again, before he can solve this case, he is reassigned back to the front lines as the army must face a rebellion along the Danube. He continues to pursue Agnus, Casta, and the judge’s killer, avoid become involved in any treasonous conspiracies, and bring some semblance of balance to his family life.
The book is enjoyable, but it is not a quick read for several reasons. First, Pastor’s use of vocabulary can be a bit weighty at times. Second, the font size for the hardback edition is a bit smaller than normal. Finally, the multiple plots, assignments and locations give the book energy, but can also be confusing. In addition, Pastor uses not only a straight narrative form, but also letters between Diocletian, Spartianus, his family and other characters and also exposes readers to Spartianus’ personal notes and observations. This style of using multiple perspectives and voices, also employed by Beverle Graves Myers in The Iron Tongue of Midnight, Ruth Downie in Terra Incognita and Stephanie Barron in A Flaw in the Blood, can be a fresh way to provide additional information, but can be upsetting for some readers.
This series is set a mere decade before the Claudia series by Paul Doherty and many of the historical figures are present in both. It is interesting to compare how they are represented by different authors.