Monday, December 30, 2013

Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

My Rating: 3.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.20 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.57 / 5.00

Astrid’s mother has always been more than a little eccentric, claiming that unicorns exist. This would not be too bad if she was talking about pink, fluffy unicorns frolicking under rainbows. No, according to Astrid’s Mum, unicorns are man-eating monsters, with razor sharp horns and poisonous fangs, that can only be killed by virgin girls descended from Alexander the Great. So it is no surprise that Astrid does not believe her mother’s stories and is fairly certain that she is completely crazy. Then a unicorn attacks her and her boyfriend and Astrid must suddenly deal with the awful truth: her mother is not truly crazy, unicorns do exist and she is one of the few people on the planet who can kill them. Yay!

Shortly after the disastrous boyfriend-munching attack, Astrid receives funding from an unknown benefactor to travel to Rome where a group of unicorn hunters are training. It seems that everyone believed that the last unicorn died in the nineteenth century, but they have begun to reappear and plague the human population again. In response, a small group is drawing together all the various families that have the correct lineage and training their virgin daughters to fight the unicorn menace.

This is the first title in a series entitled Killer Unicorns and it is set in Rome, so I was pretty much guaranteed to want to read it. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations and I was left feeling somewhat dissatisfied by the book and highly unlikely to read more in the series.

So, what was wrong with a story that had such an intriguing premise? Some of my problems were factual whilst others stemmed from the plot or setting. In general, this was one of the only YA titles that I have read that truly felt YA in its tone and subject matter.

Let us begin with the factual problems that irritated me, but which might not be an issue to other people. Early in the book we are told that there are certain families that produce women capable of being unicorn hunters. This is fine, until they are defined by their surnames: the unicorn-hunting trait is carried by females only and so must be transmitted through the female line. This would lead to surnames being irrelevant as they are derived from the male line of a family. Secondly, they are supposed to be descendants of Alexander the Great. This worried me a great deal when I read it because I was aware that Alexander was not followed by a natural heir, but rather by a group of his generals and other advisors. A quick look at Wikipedia proved that I was correct: he is credited with only two offspring, both who died young. His legitimate son was murdered at age 13, whilst his possible illegitimate son made it to the grand old age of 16. There is not much likelihood of children from the legitimate son and neither boy is reported to have married or produced an heir. So, although having Alexander as an ancient ancestor sounds quite good, I do not think it is actually possible and this struck me as sloppy research.

As for the plot, it was rather too concerned with the girls’ status as virgins and their constant fretting about boyfriends. Astrid and her cousin engage in some very stupid behavior, sneaking out of the training institution to meet up with boys that they meet on the streets of the city. Although I can understand young love, I do find it difficult to have much sympathy for young women who wander around a strange city, at night, in poorly lit and empty areas, with young men that they have only just met. When the inevitable happens I was not at all surprised, even though I condemn the young man for his actions. I am not saying that the cousin ‘deserved’ to be raped, as rape is not something that I would wish on any woman, but I did feel that their behavior was an extremely poor model for the target audience, especially as the cousin is supposed to be at college and should have a better understanding of how to minimize her exposure to danger.

There were also a few plot ‘twists’ that were not at all surprising and therefore felt contrived and sadly predictable. Rather than sticking to the idea of training young women to fight killer unicorns, there was the added complication of conspiracy and subterfuge, which I felt detracted from the storyline quite considerably. Far too many of the aspects of the training institution were so convenient as to be laughable, which reduced the believability of the setting too much for me to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

My greatest disappointment was in the rendering of the city of Rome. I am not sure if Ms Peterfreund has actually been to the Eternal City, but I did not get the impression that she had taken much notice of it before writing this title. There were a few mentions of the famous landmarks, such as the Spanish Steps, but none of the details that I would expect of someone who had actually visited the city and selected areas of it to act as the locations of events. Most of the action took place in unnamed, unrecognizable parks or streets, which was a missed opportunity in my opinion. How cool would it have been to fight killer unicorns in the passages of the Colosseum or under the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica? Much more interesting than fighting them in a generic area of open parkland in some random urban setting.  

So, does this book have any redeeming qualities? It may surprise you that I can truthfully answer that it does. The unicorns themselves are delightfully different and genuinely scary. They also behave in a way that seems reasonably consistent with biology, if we overlook their magical properties, and have a genuine reason to begin their campaign of terror, which makes a nice change. There are also plenty of hard-core fight sequences that do not shy away from the inevitable carnage associated with the fighting of killer unicorns. We do not have some vague finger waving and rainbow-glitter puffs of smoke but lots of blood-splat-gore-horror and serious injury.

However, while I appreciated the gritty portrayal of what it must be like to fight monsters, I was left disappointed by the setting and the limp Romance angst that plagued what could have been a really good story.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Io Saturnalia!

We think of Christmas as a very Christian festival, but many of its associated rituals and practices come from a much more Pagan time and it is no coincidence that the birth of Christ is celebrated very close to the Winter Solstice. As we charge into the usual orgy of gift-giving and feasting that has come to symbolize the holidays, I want to take a moment to reflect upon one origin for these activities.

Saturn Cutting off Cupid’s Wings with
a Scythe 
(1802) by Ivan Akimov
Roman festivals were usually tied to the annual cycle of agricultural events and Saturnalia is no exception. It celebrates the god Saturn and coincides with the period of the year, around the Winter Solstice, used to sow the new crops. Saturn is often associated with both agriculture and the passage of time and is traditionally depicted as carrying a sickle or scythe, so his festival marks the death of the old year and the birth of the new. He is derived from the Greek god Cronus, god of Time, and continues to the present day in the form of Father Time.

Saturnalia would begin officially on December 17 when a public sacrifice would be held in the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum. The god’s statue would have the wool bindings removed from its feet for the ceremony before the priest offered a sacrifice. He would do this with his head uncovered, which was very unusual but is consistent with Greek ritual and is only one of the many contradictions that the Saturnalia shows. After the sacrifice, the statue was carried out into the forum and draped with a red cloak before taking part in various processions and public banquets. At the end of the day, the statue would be returned to its sanctuary and have its feet rebound until the next year.

Further festivals continued in private residences for two more days in the time of Julius Caesar, but later the reveling continued for a total of seven days. This was not universally appreciated as it made some grow weary of the endless festivities and rowdy populace. Seneca complains that it now feels as if December lasts for the whole year (Seneca, Letters 18.1). As Christmas seems to begin earlier and earlier each year, I can understand his sentiments exactly!

Dice players from a wall in Pompeii
The closure of businesses, schools and courts were no doubt a welcome relief to many, but this did allow the people a free reign to behave as badly as they desired. The social distinctions between citizens and slaves were forgotten and even women were allowed to mix with their male family members. As part of this tradition, many people wore disguises or masks and the slaves would be served by their masters for at least one feast. Gambling was allowed rather than prohibited and dice games were especially popular, but the main activities were eating and drinking to excess. Whilst such debauchery was wildly popular, not everyone felt the need to over-indulge, and Pliny writes of his preference for withdrawing to his rooms so that he can get some peace and quiet whilst everyone else has a good time (Pliny, Letters 2.17.24).

Finally, on December 23, gifts were exchanged. These could be small wax or pottery figurines, candles, or many other useful items, although gifts could be very costly indeed if one had the appropriate level of wealth. Suetonius reports that the Emperor Augustus had a particular liking for trivial and silly present (Suetonius, Life of Augustus) so perhaps he would have appreciated those really, really bad sweaters that appear at this time of the year.

It is a testament to the adaptability of the Romans and their ability to absorb new religions without really changing their traditions that so many of these activities have survived until the present day. So, perhaps we should still be calling “Io Saturnalia!” instead of “Happy Holidays!”.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Season For The Dead by David Hewson

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 3.90 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.56 / 5.00

Sara Farnese is a professor of early Christianity at the University of Rome. One day she is working quietly in the Vatican Reading Room when one of her colleagues enters the room behaving very strangely. He pulls the evidence of an appallingly grisly crime from a plastic shopping bag and then proceeds to wave a gun in her face. While she tries to make sense of his bizarre behavior and confusing words he is shot dead by an overzealous security guard.

Sitting in their car just outside St Peter’s Square, Detective Nic Costa and his new partner, Luca Rossi, hear the calls for help over the Swiss Guard radio frequency that Nic is monitoring out of heat-induced boredom. Although they have no jurisdiction in the Vatican State, they are the first detectives on the scene and are soon embroiled in a disturbing series of bizarre murders where each victim is killed and presented as a martyred saint. Constantly blocked by the security officials in the Vatican and possible corruption within his own police force, Nic struggles to solve the mystery of the murders and how they are all connected to the beautiful, but enigmatic, Farnese woman.

Before I write my review I have to be honest about one thing that seriously biased my approach to this book: I love Rome. Actually, that is not quite true because it is a massive understatement. I have some sort of bizarre connection to the Eternal City that I do not understand, but which makes me feel as if I have lived there in a previous life. I am at my most content whenever I am there and I have a passion for all things Italian, modern and, most especially, ancient. I loved learning Latin when I was at school, so much so that I spent seven years studying part time to earn a degree in Classical Studies during my thirties and have even been known to cook authentic ancient Roman recipes from Apicius. Some of my favorite books are mystery novels set in Ancient Rome, especially those by Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, and my one great regret about moving to the US is that we can no longer take our two week vacation in Rome every year. So, as I said earlier: I LOVE Rome!

I recently read Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant, which is also set in Rome; in fact one of the prime reasons why I read it was because of its setting. I was pleasantly surprised that it did not make any glaring errors in its depiction of the city, but that was mainly accomplished by being rather vague in its details. This was not the case with A Season For The Dead. Mr Hewson has obviously spent a great deal of time in Rome and has done much more than visit the well-known tourist attractions. He describes many obscure places that I have also been and conjures the feeling of Rome with effortless ease, placing us in the terrible, driving heat of mid-summer when all the sensible Romans escape to the coast or the mountains. He evokes the feel and the smell of the place so well that I reveled in it, rather than finding myself waiting for the next blunder or telltale mistake that would reveal his lack of familiarity with somewhere that I know so well. This was a very, very pleasant surprise to me and one that I enjoyed immensely, grinning with delight as he used unusual locations that I recognized. This was a rare experience for me as I am so used to reading books set in the UK that do not quite ring true. For this aspect alone I found the book very enjoyable.

However, not everyone will be so enraptured by his depiction of Rome and its inhabitants, so I will try to set that aside and consider the book’s other attributes. One major problem that several of the other book group members found was with the character of Sara Farnese. We begin the book in her head and it is quickly revealed that she is engaged in an affair with an academic from the UK. She speculates that he probably has a lover in every major city, but she has never asked him about any other attachments, such as a wife. I am normally the first to be disappointed with characters that engage in infidelity, but I did not find her to be so appalling that I could not continue with the book. Unfortunately, several of the other members could not get past this point in the plot and stopped reading. I think that if they had read further and started to get to know Nic then they would have been carried along by the story as I was, but I can understand their decision. Sara is probably the weakest link in the entire book. She is certainly beautiful, intelligent and desirable, and she is provided with a sufficiently terrible origin story to explain her tragically warped character, but she still remains unsympathetic, even once we know all the appalling details. I think that starting the book in her head was a huge mistake. 

Fortunately, Nic and many of the other characters are interesting and sympathetic enough to draw us into the story. Apart from his inability to resist Sara’s lure, Nic is an excellent lead character. He is young and still learning his trade, but is not over-confident and full of bravado, nor is he exceptionally brilliant or a ‘golden boy who can do no wrong’. He works hard, makes logical deductions and is heart broken when he is disillusioned by life’s ugliness. He has an interesting back story and a penchant for studying the paintings of Caravaggio (one of my favorite artists to see in Rome). He makes personal mistakes and is suitably human, which I appreciate in the lead character of a series. We see him develop and change over the course of the story, especially in regards to the relationship with his father.

However, it is the lesser characters that really steal the show. This is especially true for Luca Rossi and his girlfriend, the pathologist known to everyone as ‘Crazy’ Theresa. Luca is a detective who has been broken by the job and is simply trying to slog along until he gets his pension. He looks like a slob and seems to care very little for himself: drinking and eating badly, smoking and continually crumpled and sweaty. He looks at Nic and sees the young man he once was, with all his energy and idealism, and finds the world unutterably depressing. There is a wonderful revelation about his character near the end of the book that is very touching, so I will not spoil it, but I will say that I genuinely wanted this man to find some happiness with Theresa: I think he deserved something good to happen to him.

Theresa is a character that I can identify with quite readily because of my training as a biologist. She is quite happy to discuss autopsy details over dinner, no matter how awfully stomach-churning this might be to her companions. This reminds me of many happy hours spent discussing parasites and intestinal infestations with my husband, a former public health laboratory technician, who can spend hours gleefully recounting the horrendous cases he encountered and samples that he processed. For some reason, when you become a biologist you develop a need to discuss the most disgusting topics whilst eating in company! Theresa is also a person uncomfortable with herself, and her position as a woman constantly fighting for acceptance in a male-dominated workplace has made her very abrasive. She is very perceptive and intelligent, with a wonderful wit, so she has some great lines and I hope that she reappears later in the series.

Another great addition to the story is Nic’s father, the dying Communist, Marco. At first, I thought that his addition to the plot was merely maudlin, but he actually brought a wonderful poignancy that grounded Nic’s character and allowed for a lot of soul searching. He was a wonderfully witty character, and the father-son relationship was very well explored, with both of them learning and growing as they came to terms with the inevitable. Marco also had the most normal relationship with Sara Farnese of all the ones that we saw, which did help to humanize her a little.

Interesting characters cannot shine without a good plot and this one skips along at a good speed. We are given a number of unusual points of view to reveal the story, and whilst this means that we are shown much more of the story than we would normally expect in a murder mystery, some people might find it rather unnerving to be placed in the head of a victim just prior to their murder. Equally, the corruption of the Vatican officials and the unethical, even evil, behavior of at least one Cardinal could be a stumbling block to some. Personally, I did not find it all shocking, not after all the revelations about the sexual abuse that the Church has tried to conceal. Also, I tend to be a rather cynical person when it comes to the Catholic Church: I have seen people dressed in sack-cloth and ashes on pilgrimage to Rome and people climbing up the stairs to Saint Peter’s Basilica on their knees in penance or supplication. I have also seen how much of the Basilica’s interior is made of gold and precious stones.

I guess it goes without saying that I really enjoyed this title and I will certainly try to find time to read more of the Nic Costa series. It may be too bloody and controversial for some readers but it transported me to my beloved Rome and kept me enthralled as the various unpleasant truths were revealed. 

(First published at Not Your Ordinary Book Banter)