Sunday, October 24, 2010

Steven Saylor

Steven Saylor is the author of the acclaimed Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries featuring Gordianus the Finder as well as the international bestseller Roma.

His new book is Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Most of my reading these days is devoted to primary sources for Roman history—everything from the chronicles of Livy to the plays of Seneca to the satires of Lucian. But I also love to read purely for escape, and in that regard I am strangely addicted to the novels of the Italian archaeologist, historical novelist, and thriller writer Valerio Massimo Manfredi.

Strangely, I say, because VMM has got to be one of the most uneven writers around. His historical novels about the Ancient World range from quite fine (The Last Legion, Tyrant, The Talisman of Troy, The Lost Army) to so-so (The Ides of March) to embarrassingly bad (Empire of Dragons).

(I have so far avoided reading the books for which VMM is best known, a trilogy of novels about Alexander the Great which were big bestsellers across Europe; VMM is so oblivious of the male-male sexuality of the ancient Greeks that I am not eager to compare his Alexander to the Alexander of Mary Renault.)

Along with historical novels, VMM also writes “thrillers”—at least they are marketed as thrillers, but the author is so blithely unfettered by genre rules and reader expectations that these books are actually unclassifiable. Like popcorn, I find them addictive and enjoyable, but ultimately unsatisfying; since VMM is willing to pull any old rabbit out of the hat (including ridiculous supernatural explanations), it hardly matters what happens in these potboilers. The Oracle is harebrained but quite atmospheric, and the breathless plotting of Pharaoh kept me turning the pages, but The Tower is a leading contender for Worst Novel Ever Written. If you don't believe me, read it yourself.

Part of the problem may lie in the translations of Christine Feddersen Manfredi. (VMM's wife? Sister-in-law? Daughter-in-law? Oddly, his book jacket bios never explain their relationship.) I'm pretty sure English is not her first language; some of the books contain repeated and obvious malapropisms of the sort no native speaker would commit. (There is editorial oversight at fault here; VMM's UK and US publishers should have caught these problems and fixed them.) Her work, too, is uneven, veering from poetic to clunky (sometimes in the same paragraph), but I think, in general, the English prose in VMM's books has gotten better over the years.

So where does the VMM thriller I’m reading now, The Ancient Curse, fit into all of this? The book was first published in Italian (as Chimaira) back in 2001 (immediately after the Alexander trilogy), but has only now been translated into English. Set in present-day Italy, the plot revolves around a strange archaeological find from Etruscan times; more than VMM's other thrillers, this one really draws on his experience as an archaeologist, which is a definite plus. The nature of the story is supernatural from the outset, so there are no bizarre left-turns along the way. And the language is sometimes quite fine, spare but evocative, with some eerie scenes that remind me of certain uncanny moments in David Lynch movies. I have to say I am enjoying every page.

So, I would rate this as the best of VMM's thrillers. (I think there is one more yet to be translated into English, his first novel from 1985, Palladion). Don't expect air-tight plotting, but do expect vivid characters, a brooding atmosphere, authentic archaeological details, and a pretty good yarn.
Visit Steven Saylor's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue