This is probably one of the most intriguing historical crime thrillers I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It's not just a police procedural awkwardly transplanted to the Roman era, but a story of criminal intrigue that belongs entirely in that bygone, almost mythological era. Admittedly, I don't remember a great deal about my University studies in ancient history, but my sense is that Johnstone really knows his stuff.
Let's get the obvious out of the way and talk about the history. The setting here is impeccable, well-developed, perfectly detailed, and nicely balanced in terms of that with which we should be familiar - particularly the darker, poorer side of the city - and the elements most readers likely never encountered in school. The characters are strong as well, playing their expected roles in the world of ancient Alexandria, but also coming alive as living, breathing, individuals with whom we, as readers, interact. I suspect their crassness and vulgarity may be a bit anachronistic, but the genre pretty much demands it.
While more properly described as a thriller than a mystery, this is still a story that manages to build suspense, keep us guessing, and throw in a few twists along the way. Murder, theft, lies, and backstabbing betrayals, it's all here. Aculeo's story could just as easily have been a contemporary one, but likely not half as interesting. Despite beginning the story as a washed-up, bitter drunk, he's a character to whom we quickly warm up. Sekhet is a woman whom I'm sure is an anachronism, but I wouldn't have it any other way. She serves an important role in terms of plot, but also plays well off of Acuelo. There's a large cast of supporting characters, many of whom we only see for a scene, but they're all important.
Overall, probably the most unique read I've encountered in quite some time, and an altogether pleasant surprise. As genre-crossovers go, this one is not to be missed.Originally reviewed at Beauty in Ruins