The Emperor's Servant (Lucius Sestius Mysteries, #2) by Fiona Forsyth
There is nothing like the secrets, subterfuge, and backroom machinations of Forsyth's ancient Rome.
It has been 20 years since the Battle of Philippi when Octavian and Mark Antony defeated the Republic to claim leadership of the Roman Empire. The defeated noblemen were exiled, and among them was young Lucius Sestius Quirinalis. Years later, Augustus granted him and others pardons, and Lucius returned to his country home in Cosa to farm, tend his vineyard, and rebuild his family's livelihood. The family had been stripped of much of their land and wealth as a consequence of choosing the wrong side in the Civil War. Dedicated to the Republican ideal, Lucius stayed away from Rome, out of politics, steadfast in tending to his family.
Time, though, was not kind to the winner. Octavian, now Emperor Augustus Caesar, was ill. Concerns for the continuation of the Empire in the event of his sudden death have been under much discussion. Trying to lessen his day-to-day burden, he sends his representative, Gaius Maecenas, to Lucius to have him return to Rome to take on the role of consul, just until the end of the year.
Although not enamored of the idea, the positive impacts that having served as consul would have on his children's futures tip the scale in favor of accepting, and he does so with trepidation. But, in truth, what choice does he have?
Of course, immediately after starting this book, I began to wish I was more familiar with the history of Rome. Well-known historical figures feature prominently, and I know I missed getting some of the implications of certain conversations that I wouldn't have had a more intimate understanding of that time and place. However, this didn't detract from my pure enjoyment and satisfaction with the story. There is nothing like the secrets, subterfuge, and backroom machinations of Forsyth's ancient Rome. The Emperor's Servant vividly conveys all the complexities and totality of the scope and reach of these definitive puppet masters.
The book's main character is Lucius Sestius Quirinalis, and he has been a favorite of mine since his introduction in Rome's End. He seems like a regular guy, trying to do the right thing. He is always polite and conscientious of his family, retainers, and the people of Rome. I was sad that he had come to depend on wine to cope with his life, though he's been through plenty to need a drink. He is relatable, too. The scene of him weeping in relief after his election as consul made him seem even more real. A number of years have passed since the conclusion of book one, and at first, I thought Lucius was no longer the innocent he was then. However, even after all he's been through, he still has a natural innocence, which causes him to be surprised by what others around him do.
The looming disaster, the insidious intrigue lurks, and you know that disaster is only a page away at any moment. I was so engrossed in the story that I felt myself holding my breath at times, the muscles in my shoulders tightening as the story's tension built. When the shoe finally dropped, I was stunned. I had become emotionally engaged with this man and his family and wondered how anyone could come back from that. But people do. All the time. The story concludes on a hopeful note, and I hope there are further adventures for Lucius in the future.
I want to note that the author's writing flowed so smoothly that I was immediately drawn in and immersed in Lucius's life. Small, everyday details enhanced that you-are-there feeling. Forsyth is incredibly skillful at weaving in little tidbits of information and history that had me itching to read about further. For example, Lucius remarks about the Greek physicians who never ceased attending Rome's citizens during a terrible pestilence that their devotion to their work all came down "to an oath that they have sworn" – the Hippocratic Oath.
I recommend THE EMPEROR'S SERVANT to readers who enjoy historical fiction, especially those that like political intrigue and suspense-laden stories.
I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from Reedsy Discovery.