Bruce Macbain,
The Bull Slayer
(Poisoned Pen, 2014)

If you like a little mystery blended with your historical fiction, The Bull Slayer is a solid choice. The story takes place in the ancient Roman province of Bithynia (modern-day Turkey), and getting to know its locations, culture and politics is a big highlight of the novel. The author, Bruce Macbain, was a university professor of Greek and Roman history, so he is well-educated about this world and brings it to life very convincingly. The storytelling is very visual and immersive.

Macbain does not only use historical places; some of the characters are based on real-life people as well. The main protagonist is Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Younger), who did in fact govern Bithynia and marry the younger Calpurnia. He is serious and shrewd, but also has tenderness for his wife and compassion for "lesser" people. Suetonius, writer of the famous The Twelve Caesars, is also a prominent character, portrayed as a witty bon-vivant. Macbain gives these long-dead Romans wonderful personality and real human emotions. He also presents some very interesting characters of his own creation: the conniving oracle Pancrates, the crafty slave Ione and the charismatic jerk Agathon.

The novel is actually a sequel to Roman Games, which took place 10 years earlier. But you do not need to have read that book to understand the events of The Bull Slayer. The premise seems to be a straightforward murder-mystery, but it become quickly apparent that it is a tangled mess of politics and power struggles. Add to this a soap-opera happening in Pliny's household, and the story becomes a real page-turner.

The Bull Slayer is excellent as a historical fiction, a mystery novel or a character drama. I look forward to more of Bruce Macbain's stories.

book review by
Patrick Derksen

8 November 2014

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