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    Review of ORACLE OF THE DEAD by John Maddox Roberts


    Minotaur, December 2008

    Decius Caecilius Metellus, now Praetor Peregrinus, is doing his best to stay away from Rome while the senate, Pompey and Caesar spar for control of the dying Republic. While visiting an Oracle to Hecate, a death-goddess, Metellus spots the corpse of a priest to Apollo--the god who shares a building with the oracle. Metellus resolves to investigate--anything to stay away from Rome. It isn't long before he starts getting pressure from Pompey to solve the problem. Pompey is planning on using southern Italy as a recruiting ground and he doesn't want any trouble to slow down his legions.

    Metellus's suspicions immediately point him toward the strange priestesses of Hecate. He's unaware of any other Oracles ruled by the death-goddess, and suspicious of any apparently supernatural activities. Still, finding the truth when everyone is suspicious of the Romans and when slaves can only give evidence after being tortured (hence their unwillingness to hurry forward) is difficult.

    Metellus's investigations can only be intermittent. There are many parties he needs to attend as the ranking Roman official in the area (at least until Pro-Consul Pompey visits), and then he's wounded, taking him temporarily off duty. Still, he keeps at it, even though he knows that his time is limited. If nothing else, he needs to head to Sicily before inevitable war breaks out between Caesar and Pompey.

    Author John Maddox Roberts (see more reviews of mysteries by Roberts) continues his SPQR series into the year when Caesar crosses the Rubercon and plunges the Roman Republic into its final conflagration. Roberts skillfully mingles history with mystery, increasing enjoyment for fans of Roman history. To me, though, ORACLE OF THE DEAD missed a few opportunities. Metellus's activities play no particular role in the Republic's last days, the conspiracy he uncovers is not especially large or important, and he could have done far more with the whole concept of a female-centered oracle (after all, the great Oracle of Delphi was once an Oracle of the goddess, taken over by Apollo).

    ORACLE OF THE DEAD is an enjoyable and fast read--even if I didn't find it up to the overall high standards of this excellent series.

    Three Stars

    Reviewed 6/19/09

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