An Empire for Ravens (John, the Lord Chamberlain Mysteries)
This twelfth book in the John the Lord Chamberlain Mystery series follows the sixth-century Byzantium sleuth as he illegally breaks his exile from Constantinople to help his friend Felix in Goth-besieged Rome. Picking up Felix’s abandoned life, John soon finds his friend murdered in the city’s catacombs. A treasure hunt turns into a hunt for a killer as Totila and his Goths assault Rome’s crumbling walls.
My favorite parts of the novel were the believable descriptions of an imperial city in collapse, depopulated, demoralized, in contrast to John’s usual haunts of rising Greek Constantinople. Senator’s daughters masquerade as their servants, hoping to avoid kidnapping. A former beggar is now pope. A remnant of chariot racing provides sporting types with a sad compulsion, a way to feel good about themselves and a way to lighten their purses with fruitless betting. Householders can no longer afford to pay the guards to protect what they no longer own. Orphans live in abandoned buildings, creeping out at night to steal food. The stumps of forests chopped down for firewood now serve as display counters for those who have a trapped rabbit or two to sell at outlandish prices. Dare I say it? Those finding themselves in a modern empire on the verge of collapse keep looking for instructive parallels.
The story itself I did not always find compelling. Scenes seemed missing that could have heightened tension and helped to a clearer understanding of the characters. But it’s definitely worth the read for followers of John the Lord Chamberlain or those interested in the collapse of Rome.