Book Reviews at roman history books and more…
Spoiler alert! Do not, repeat not, read the Author's Note before finishing the book.
The Pericles Commission
by Gary Corby
or: The Education of Nicolaos, Son of Sophroniscus …
A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud. I stopped and stood there like a fool, astonished to see him lying where I was about to step. He lay facedown in the dirt, arms spread wide, with an arrow protruding out his back. He'd been shot through the heart.
Thus begins this entertaining mystery novel. Barely has Nicolaos recovered from this shock, down walks Pericles, identifying the body as his friend Ephialtes, who brought real democracy to Athens. One word leads to another, and Pericles commissions Nicolaos to investigate the murder. Nicolaos, recently returned from military service, is unwilling to follow in his father's footsteps as a sculptor and rather dreams of a career in politics, so he jumps at the offer. Little does he know what he is getting himself into.
The year is 461 BCE, and Ephialtes, the leader of the Democrats, has been at loggerheads with the Areopagus, the ruling council of oligarchs, whose function he has largely emasculated. One of these is Xanthippus, Pericles' father. Except for our protagonist, almost all major characters in the novel are historical figures, from his parents Sophroniscus and Phaenarete and his pesky and irritating little brother Socrates (yes, the Socrates) to the various political movers and shakers, and Diotima, a priestess of Artemis. Mr. Corby paints a large canvass of Ancient Athens, the city, its markets, its mob, its laws and mores.
Rather naïvely at first, Nicolaos treads where others fear to go, despite dire warnings from his father, "Do one thing for this old man, Nicolaos, make sure your play is a comedy, not a tragedy." He soon learns that all this is much more complicated than he thought: Pericles' commission has no official standing, Nicolaos sees his life threatened more than once, and receives lessons in politics, treachery, and personal relationships; in other words, he is growing up. He doggedly continues his task, doesn't spurn assistance from his friends (though he is not too happy when little Socrates shows him up) and does find the murderer, but still has only a vague idea who employed him. Finally, his enemies catch up with him, and his life is in real peril until we get to the denouement and the vindication … after all, he is the hero in this story, and sequels are to follow.
Mr. Corby is one of those sure-footed writers who get it right in their very first novel. Well written and historically well researched, the story moves briskly, the character develops, and the narrative develops as Nicolaos does. There is a court scene that almost had me, in the current vernacular, rolling on the floor. In his Author's Note, Mr. Corby tells us that a lot of things in his novel actually happened, and if they didn't, they could have. An imaginative interpretation of history! As the author writes, "Perhaps the greatest joy of writing a book like this is interweaving fiction into the fabric of truth." Even the court scene is based on a real story, though this story did not happen until several hundreds years later, but who knows, Mr. Corby says, whether a later lawyer was not inspired by the earlier event. There are also more serious parallels of father/son relationships: Sophroniscus/Nicolaos, Xanthippus/Pericles. And there is at least one love story.
The book contains a timeline of Athenian history and a list of characters, called "The Actors," with tongue-in-cheek quotes attached indicating their reactions to Nicolaos' quest.
If you want to be entertained and at the same time learn about Ancient Greece, this is the book for you! I'm eagerly looking forward to the next installment, which takes our hero into the Persian Empire.
A dead man fell from the sky, Gary Corby's blog.
© 2010 Irene B. Hahn
The Pericles Commission
by Gary Corby
Hardcover: 304 pages
Minotaur Books (October 12, 2010)
List Price: $16.49
There will also be a Kindle edition as of November 9, 2010
Articles & Essays by group members & friends
Roman History Reading Group