Book Review: The Ionia Sanction

My freshman college roommate—an overachiever who double-majored in business and something else traditionally lucrative that I can’t remember—was required to take a year-long course called “Western Civ.”  I wasn’t, and after just one semester of watching her try to stay awake while jamming ancient and venerable dates and names and events of the who-on-earth-cares-they’re-all-dead-now variety into her overtaxed brain, I was more than grateful to be a music major.

But if Gary Corby had been teaching that class?  I would have taken it voluntarily and recommended it to all my friends.

Yep. That would be foreshadowing.

The man has never met a boring historical fact—or if he has, he seems completely incapable of passing it along in that state.  His interest and enthusiasm are absolutely infectious and the way he connects cause and effect is the mark of a great teacher—or a great mystery author.

I thoroughly enjoyed Gary Corby’s debut, The Pericles Commission, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for more than a year to read more of Nicolaus, ancient Athen’s first private detective, and his ladylove, the brilliant priestess Diotima. Visiting  his blog helped, for the reasons stated in the previous paragraph, but it wasn’t the same.

So when I was offered the opportunity to get my hands on an advance copy of The Ionia Sanction, you better believe I went for it.*

One would think that solving the murder of the inventor of democracy would earn Nico respect and some kudos for a job eventually well done.  But he’s starting a hard-boiled tradition here, so what he gets instead is murder, woman trouble, and advanced courses in ethics and treason.

An Athenian agent who facilitates Ephesian business interests has been murdered, leaving behind a note that says he betrayed his office and city—and that Athens is in danger.  Pericles hires Nico to hunt down the killer and the victim’s son asks him to clear his father of treason.  But after a valiant, catastrophic attempt to catch the murderer and retrieve the victim’s stolen mail seriously ticks off his boss, Nico decides he’d be better off looking for answers in Ephesus.

On his way, he acquires Asia, a headstrong slave girl who insists she’s the daughter of the infamous Athenian traitor Themistocles, and reunites with a somewhat frosty Diotima, whom he hasn’t seen since his father refused to allow them to marry.

Together, they head for the Persian province of Magnesia.  There, they encounter treasure, treachery, and Themistocles, who takes a personal, and not entirely altruistic, interest in Nico’s future. A future that is looking brighter and brighter through Persian-colored glasses.

As the trail leads Nico farther from his home into unknown territory, he must determine where his loyalties truly lie and whether he can walk a fine enough ethical line to save his home, his love, and himself.

Holy cow, but this is a good book.

There’s snappy dialogue, multi-layered characters—I found Barzanes, an investigator of the Persian King, to be particularly intriguing**—emotional turmoil, a plethora of unobtrusive historical details about two disparate cultures,  and two, or three, plots braided together to make one heck of a mystery.

If The Pericles Commission is all about politics and power, Ionia Sanction is all about philosophies, loyalties, and ethics.  The mystery isn’t just about solving the initial murder—it’s about the motivations and personal beliefs of each character and how far they will go to defend or deny them.

This may seem obvious, but the ancient world was a vastly different place—it wasn’t simply ours minus technology.  There were different laws, different etiquettes, different attitudes, hygiene, methods, mindsets, social conventions, and values.  And Gary Corby’s characters, for the most part, keep to the customs and rules they know and don’t think of challenging them. Even the ones that, from our point of view, are a bit silly or unfair, or those that could hamper or harm them.***

Of course, these characters do rationalize, spin, and bend the letter of the law just this side of the breaking point—they aren’t  completely different from us—and the technicalities and loopholes they come up with are fascinating to behold. But when one of them actually breaks with an accepted custom or social convention, however small, it has real impact to the character and the story.

I can’t tell you my favorites of these without ruining the  novel, so I’ll share a  detail that grabbed me (skip the next two paragraphs if you want to avoid a tiny spoiler):

At one point, Nico is invited to put on a pair of trousers so he can learn to ride a horse without sustaining considerable damage to one of his favorite sensitive areas.  He’s appalled and disgusted— trousers are a Persian thing and a challenge to masculinity and no self-respecting Hellene man would wear them. Ever.  Period.  So it’s an incredibly big deal when he finally agrees to try them, for practical purposes . . . and even bigger deal later when he automatically dons a pair and feels only a twinge of unease that he doesn’t feel more.

There’s a subtle sense of corruption here, one slippery centimeter down that metaphorical slope, and it’s very effective.  To us, it’s protective clothing.  For Nico, it’s a sign that his core values, his sense of self, might be changing.

This is good stuff, and it’s only possible because the author understands his setting and his characters so well and has skillfully passed that understanding to his readers.^    We end up judging the character’s actions and beliefs by their lights, not ours—and that makes all the difference.

So does a  generous dash of humor—Nico alone has his share of foot-in-mouth episodes, bumbles, and pratfalls, including a beautiful moment (and I’m sorry for the spoiler, but I can’t help this one) when he states that of course he can ride a horse, because he’s a man . . . and you can actually hear the Fates pulling  his life-thread back like anachronistic elastic on the pair of  pants he will no doubt soon wish—despite custom—he had been wearing.

In short, Gary Corby has done it again.

So if you’re looking for me, check his blog—I’ll be there, waiting for the next one!

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The Ionia Sanction will be released on November 8, which gives you plenty of time to pre-order—and read or re-read  The Pericles Commission, too!

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*I did not giggle manically . . . but in the spirit of full disclosure I’ll admit to doing a few steps of the free book dance.

**He almost makes up for the absence of Euterpe and Pythas, my two favorite secondary characters from Pericles.  I’m interested in knowing what they thought of Diotima being rejected as a suitable bride for Nico.  It probably wouldn’t be what one would expect.

***This, I think, is  how Nico can do what he does without so much as a magnifying glass—he knows  how things are supposed to be in Athens and deduces from the differences.  Which is why placing him in different place or culture really knocks him off-balance.

^And, as usual, his Author Notes are not to be missed.  They’re as interesting as the mystery—in a good way.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Ionia Sanction

  1. Fantastic review.
    Sarah,
    I’m not sure what but there is some form that we haven’t put our finger on that would be perfect for your footnote extravaganzas. I love your commentary as much as the writing. I think you need to be a columnist somewhere….
    Wheels are turning…
    Do you smell smoke?
    Thank you for introducing me to someone that I wouldn’t have gotten to on my own.

    • You’re welcome, Lyra—and please try the Pericles Commission. Better yet, get your library to buy a couple copies of each, if they haven’t already. 🙂

      I do smell smoke, but I think it’s because the kids next door accidentally set their jack o’ lantern on fire last night. It smells like slightly overdone pie . . . (Lyra’s pumpkin muffins for breakfast? Oh, yes!)

      As far as I know, there’s no other place but the blogosphere that would accept pieces with more footnote than article, but if you see one, let me know!

  2. I love the whole trousers bit. I wonder if there’s any historical truth to it and, if so, whether a man’s preference for either boxers or briefs stems from here. An evolutionary trend towards underwear? That’s hysterical.

  3. Thanks for this great post, Sarah! I’ve been wanting to read The Pericles Commission for a year and keep putting it off. Now I’m encouraged!!

  4. Pingback: A fair dinkum month – November (and some of October) 2011 | Fair Dinkum Crime

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