by M.J. Troy and Maryanne Coleman
2018, Endeavor Media, e-book
M. J. Trow and Maryanne Coleman have captured the culture of Rome in THE YEAR OF THE SNAKE. They did such a good job that at times I felt sadness as I read. In this world slavery is just an unremarkable fact of life. Slaves are expendable. Murderous deaths in the arena are considered mere entertainment. After all, many of the victims are just slaves. It is a world where the vast majority of men exist only to service the rich. The mass of men starve while the rich live a lifestyle of incalculable luxury.
Such a world seems alien and horrible to our eyes. After reading so much history, however, and teaching history and government, I have realized that this has been the world since the beginning of time. The boundary is very slim between the cultures most of us have enjoyed (as flawed as they have been and are) for the past few generations and that of the ancient Romans. Viewed in this way, THE YEAR OF THE SNAKE might be seen as something of a cautionary tale.
I don’t really think that Trow and Coleman intended this as an allegory. Rather, I think they wanted to provide a murder mystery in as authentic a setting as possible. It seems to me, as I noted earlier, that the authors succeeded this. I had a few doubts at first, but the murder mystery set in that world ultimately seemed plausible enough.
Calidus, the main character, was a slave of Nerva, who was apparently one of the few (maybe the only) Senator who had a conscience and a sense of integrity. He was loved by his wife and slaves. His ideas were perhaps eccentric to his peers, but Nerva was brave and fought for what he believed to be right. He died one night after a party, apparently from natural causes, but Calidus is convinced Nerva was murdered. Calidus was freed in Nerva’s will and tries to found out who murdered his former owner, friend, and father figure.
I wasn’t quite sure how this could play out, considering that murdering even a pesky ex-slave in that culture would be easy enough. Calidus, however, is smart and brave. He navigates the perils of that society, including a murder attempt on his life. He uncovers disquieting secrets that lead to tragedy as well as success when he reaches his goal.
I had a few questions about possible anachronisms – not relating to fact but to word choices. It seemed to me that some of the ancients sometimes talked in modern jargon. I decided to not pay much attention to these because, I figured, it might be as if the authors had translated from ancient Latin to modern English. I also found myself slightly puzzled at the many names a man could go by and references in Latin, without translation.
It was also interesting that while Christians, in the time of Nero, were a growing presence, they were referenced only once in a passing joke about the entertainment at the Circus. This could also make sense, however, because Christianity existed primarily among the poor and slaves, so the rich men and women would have no reason to think about them in their day-to-day lives.
In other words, I did not consider these enough to not enjoy the story itself. It is fiction, after all.
With that being said, it might not be bad if this story did cause the reader to think deeper about history and to see a cautionary tale about the horror that results when a few powerful men enslave the multitude of other men and women for their own pleasure.
(I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)