New for My Spring-Quarter Survival Kit, a Bit of 6th Century Constantinople

Ten for Dying: A John, the Lord Chamberlain, Mystery #10, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer (Poisoned Pen Press)

We’re moving into the final week of winter quarter where I teach, with one more quarter left to go after that before summer opens up before us, wide and (at least in our fantasies) encompassing time enough for every read and project we can dream up. Mid-March is the point in the academic year when I begin to feel a bit like a boulder rolling downhill, building up momentum, with not much control over direction, chipping off bits and pieces of myself as I go. Mid-March is also when I start looking for promising new mystery series to help me survive the last three months of the academic year.

Lucky me, I’ve stumbled upon one—and there are already ten volumes in the series! This is the John, the Lord Chamberlain, series written by the wife-and-husband (see what I did with those pronouns?) team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. The series is set in 6th Century Constantinople, where Christianity is now the state religion, but where the old religions—in this case worship of Egyptian human/animal deities and the cult of Mithra, god of soldiers—still have a strong presence. Faith, as it has been in pretty much every era, is political, as well as personal.

I’ve just read Ten for Dying (the tenth book in the series), in which the John of the series title plays only a minor role. He’s been banished from Constantinople, and the lead player in this volume is Felix, one of John’s friends and captain of the palace guard, a man of middling ambition, who isn’t always quick to see the ways others are taking advantage of him or using him for their own political ends.

In this volume we get an attempt to resurrect the Empress Theodora, which involves a great many frogs; sightings of apes, demons, and lepers, some of this a result unwitting consumption of hallucinogenics; and the theft of the supposed shroud of the Mary, mother of Jesus. Basically, we get big fun, with serious issues a few levels down in the stratigraphy—where they can hold a reader’s interest without turning the reading experience into a more demanding philosophical wrestling match.

This isn’t a book (or series) that will be read in graduate literature seminars two hundred years from now, but it does offer several hours of very enjoyable entertainment. The central characters have some complexity (though those on the periphery are more one-dimensional); the plot won’t make your brain ache, but it has enough incidents of political manouevering to keep things interesting.

I expect I’ll spend a week or so of my spring quarter working my way through the previous volumes in the series in whatever free time I can carve out. I’ll get to know John, who remains a bit of a cipher to me at the moment, and I’ll see the emergence and development of Felix, who’s at the heart of the volume I’ve just finished. And, come summer, I can work my way back up to more demanding reading.