From The Mystery Reader

By nature, the historical mystery genre offers a wealth of opportunity for creative settings and characters. From Steven Saylor we have Gordianus the Finder, a clever detective in the ancient Rome of Pompey and Crassus. From Lynda S. Robinson, we have Lord Meren, the Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh in ancient Egypt. And now, joining these ancient sleuths we have John the Eunuch, the Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian in sixth century Byzantium. Previously featured in short stories, authors Mary Reed and Eric Mayer have released their first novel, One for Sorrow, featuring this unusual and intriguing character. John is a middle-aged man who holds an important position in Justinian's Christian court; he is sort of like today's Chief of Staff. While Christianity has overtaken much of the empire, John is still a quietly practicing Mithraic. John is not a eunuch by choice; in fact, he still longs for his lover from years ago. When he tells his sad tale to a new friend, it is both horrifying and compelling. Even though he might seem to have lost some of his "manliness," John is a trusted and wise figure under the emperor, and is portrayed here as fully able to protect and defend.

The plot of One for Sorrow revolves around an unexplained murder. One of John's closest friends, Leukos, Keeper of the Plate (think treasury official) has been killed in a dirty alleyway. Could someone have murdered him for a precious religious relic? (Saints' bones and chalices seem to be everywhere.) A newcomer from Bretania seems to believe so.

Thomas, a knight from the court of King Arthur has journeyed to Constantinople to search for the Holy Grail. He is one of the last people to have spoken with Leukos before his death. John seems to trust the hearty soldier, but he appears too often in John's path for it to be coincidence. Then there is the ancient soothsayer Ahasuerus, who has been making a name for himself reading fortunes. Even the Empress Theodora may have been one of his clients. Why would Leukos, a professed and seemingly devout Christian, be visiting this fortuneteller at the run-down Inn of the Centaurs? And what about the brothel near the Inn? Was Leukos visiting a woman before he was murdered?

As John delves further into Leukos' final days, the path seems to split in many directions. Why does the Patriarch Epiphanios seem to be interfering in the investigation? And why does the murder of a young prostitute at the brothel seem to be tied in to the first murder as well?

For readers who enjoy historical fiction written by knowledgeable authors, One for Sorrow won't disappoint. In fact, the glossary at the back of the book will be essential for many of us who missed some classes in ancient history. For example, the unusual holy men called stylites play a role in this tale. And typical expressions from this period such as "Owls to Athens" are also explained in this glossary.

Even better, Reed and Mayer are able to create an interesting cast of characters and well-crafted plot. People like the stylites, the Madam, and palace servants are believably drawn and developed. And of course the bull leapers (women from John's past) are a fascinating and unique addition, and also add to John's character development. (Unfortunately, they disappear rather abruptly, one of the novel's weak points.) Certain events also help to flesh the story out, such as an ancient Mithraic ceremony in which John's friend Anatolius is initiated into a higher rank of the ancient religion.

In the end, most readers will come away from One for Sorrow finding they enjoy the company of a clever eunuch. As the authors plan to continue John's stories, we can look forward to spending more time with an interesting new addition to the historical mystery world -- John the Eunuch.

--Martha Moore (Nov 9, 1999)

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