Innocence & Gold Dust
Eutropius, the main character in Frances Webb’s novel, is a eunuch, and this may remind some readers of Mary Renault’s great masterpiece, The Persian Boy, also narrated by a eunuch. Lucily for the readers of Webb’s utterly fantastic Innocence & Gold Dust, the similarities don’t end there: this book shares all the strengths of Renault’s work—extensive research lightly worn, deftly drawn characters of all kinds, a pitch-perfect ear for dialog, a sure hand for plotting—and adds one big thing too often missing from Renault’s works: a wry, twinkling sense of humor. Eutropius has grand ambitions, and he pursues them by becoming the beloved prop and mascot of the Emperor Theodosius. His goal is to become indispensable to the great powers in the latter half of the fourth century, and although Eutropius takes his rise to power very seriously, Webb is smiling the whole time, the wry smile we save for the actions of a friend who happens to be a bit of a fool. And Eutropius isn’t the only fool in these pages by a long shot. We get foolish emperors, foolish generals, foolish bishops of the rapidly growing Christian church, and Webb gives almost every one of these characters some memorably snarky lines, as when one of them observes, “Nektarius has died. What a prissy thing for him to do.” But for all the understated humor in Innocence & Gold Dust, there’s a stout heart as well. When Eutropius, thinking about becoming a Christian (as a career move, of course), reflects, “It seemed to him that he should believe something a lot harder than he did,” readers will nod in agreement, fond of this character despite their own better judgments. Webb has crafted a superb and entertaining story—highly recommended.