Monday, August 15, 2011

A Review: The Hadrian Enigma, a Forbidden History by George Gardiner

In many ways, Hadrian Enigma is simply a historical “murder mystery” seen through the eyes of a most unusual PI, the historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. This novel, by the way, is rather a lengthy tome.

In 130 AD, while accompanying the Emperor Hadrian on a tour up the Nile, the beautiful youth Antinous plunges into the Nile and drowns. Hadrian, near maddened with grief, declares Antinous a god. However, Suetonius just happens to be along on this imperial tour. Already the author of juicy books on contemporary Roman life, he is perfectly placed to investigate this mysterious death, so Emperor Hadrian commands him to investigate and find the murderer within 48 hours or suffer the consequences.

In the imperial compound on the Nile, Suetonius searches for clues. Here, semi-isolated, the bubbling cauldron of the Roman court has been transplanted to a fabulous tent city. Yet, the mystery of Egypt is an ever present backdrop to this baffling death.

Perhaps the murderer is one of the other ephebes with whom Antinous shared quarters. They have reason enough for jealousy of the emperor's beloved eromenos. But there are plenty of other possible suspects and witnesses in the royal court: the Empress Sabina, Hadrian's flamboyant heir-apparent Lucius, and a whole coterie of scheming courtiers, not to mention the creepy Egyptian high priest.

Why was Antinous clad in heavy ceremonial parade armor and weapons when he died? How did he come by a slit on his left wrist and strange marks on his throat? And how can Suetonius unravel all this when the Emperor refuses to let Suetonius even touch the body to examine it?

The characterization is vivid and the historicity meticulous in this novel. I enjoyed savoring the characters and setting as Suetonius unraveled the imperial goings on. Some might find themselves impatient with the sprinkling of Greek and Latin throughout the novel. I thought it added to the impact and feeling of being there, but I suspect not everyone would enjoy the necessity to look some of it up. There were also moments when the author slipped into modern jargon which was jarring.

All in all, it was an enjoyable read, but not necessarily a light or fast one in spite of being rather a page turner. The ending, which I won't go into, is satisfying and well worth the journey.

Definitely a four-star read. I recommend it to any historical fiction fan, especially any fan of the redoubtable Mary Renault. You will find The Hadrian Enigma on Amazon at $9.99 for Kindle.

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