I don’t read a ton of historical fiction, a genre that is so popular in the mystery world that it has spawned at least three separate awards. However, when life in the present day starts to get you down—and the newspapers have been full of grim headlines lately—sometimes, escaping into a bygone time period can be just the ticket.
I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent in ancient Rome with Steven Saylor’s detective, Gordianus the Finder. A few years ago, Saylor rebooted the long-running series and started writing “prequels” about Gordianus’ adventures as a younger man. The Seven Wonders takes place just as he’s turned 18. Accompanied by his elderly tutor, Antipater, he sets out to see all of the wonders of the ancient world. The book is a series of linked short stories rather than a longer narrative; at each wonder, Gordianus finds a mystery to solve. There’s also one big arc involving Antipater, who is traveling under an assumed identity after faking his own death. What would make him do such a thing?
One of the most appealing things about The Seven Wonders is that Saylor has done a ton of research into the subject, and describes each of the wonders beautifully. I spent a lot of time looking up the wonders online too, so I could see what they looked like (or historians’ best guesses as to what they looked like) and how long they stood. Who wouldn’t have wanted to catch a glimpse of the Pharos Lighthouse or the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus? Some of the wonders were already in a state of decline by the time Gordianus set out on his journey (92 B.C.); the Colossus of Rhodes had fallen, and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were in ruins.
As a bonus, Gordianus and Antipater attend the Olympic Games, which may have been safer and better-organized back in 92 B.C. than the upcoming Rio games.
Despite the serious scholarship that went into The Seven Wonders, it’s first and foremost a lively collection of mysteries, featuring a likable protagonist and a wide variety of puzzles to solve. This book is pure fun from start to finish.