by Kelli Stanley
Cover Artist: Stanislaw Fernandes
Review by Gayle Surrette
Minotaur Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312654191
Date: 01 February 2011 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
It's been a long wait since Nox Dormienda was released in July of 2008 and The Curse-Maker certainly lives up to its predecessor – a roman noir with wit, heart, and all the angst you could want in a main character, not to mention a clever twisty mystery. Julius Alpinius Classicianus Favonianus, also known as Arcturus as he's half-British, is Governor Agricola's physician, but not for much longer for the governor expects to be recalled to Rome – hopefully not for his death – while Arcturus will stay in Britain.
Arcturus is heart-sick. He was unable to save Agricola's only son from his last illness and the boy's death weighs heavy on him. Then the recent campaign saw the death of so many Brits as Agricola took this chance to quell the dissent before being recalled. Arcturus wants to return home to his wife and Agricola offers his villa at Aquae Sulis (now called Bath) for as long as he wishes, so that he may repair his relationship with his wife, Gwyna.
A wonderful idea, but on their arrival they're in time to witness a body floating in the sacred waters. And on examination by Arcturus, the realization that this death is not misadventure, but murder. At Gwyna's urging, Arcturus finds himself investigating the crime and soon realizes that there is more wrong with his marriage than he thought, and Aquae Sulis has more problems than just this murder.
That's just the beginning of what turns out to be a page-turner of a mystery. While the historical period is meticulously researched, it's the writing that brings the time and place alive for the reader. Having been to Bath, I could just imagine the beauty of the golden glow from the new buildings in the town. Even more important, Stanley brings the characters to life with words so that they cause the reader to react to them with either distaste, horror, or concern.
For most of us with English as our native tongue, these are stories of our ancestors and our heritage. On the other hand, the time and place is not idealized. While historic doesn't necessarily mean barbaric or primitive, there is a clash of cultures between the invading and ruling Romans and the indigenous culture of Britain. Arcturus is half-Roman and half-Britain and, with a tether to each culture, he makes a remarkable character to allow the reader to see both sides of some issues, though with his own filters of upbringing and his training as a physician.
How did the man in the baths die? Who killed him and why? We'll learn the answers before the last page, but the journey to those answers is one that you'll think about over and over after you close the covers of The Curse-Maker.