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!


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!


*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.


Book Review: The Pericles Commission

I don’t remember how I first arrived at Gary Corby’s blog—it was most probably through Janet Reid’s blog or her QueryShark site—but the first post I read there examined the comparative size and battle-readiness of the modern US Navy to the Athenian navy of about 480 BC.

It was so cool. And so is Gary Corby.

See, Mr. Corby truly enjoys the Classical Period of Greece.  His enthusiasm and fascination with events big (the Persian Wars) and details small (fish sauce!) are utterly contagious.  He makes history accessible, immediate, and fun.

I had his debut mystery pre-ordered*  before I finished reading his next post.**

Nicolaos is a young Athenian man just out of his mandatory army training and looking to his future—a future made brighter by the very recent establishment of a democratic government .  All citizens are equal under this days-old system, which means Nico has the opportunity to walk his own path–until a body literally falls across it.

The murder of the great political reformist Ephialtes could stop democracy in its tracks—which may be the idea.  Nico is commissioned by charismatic politician Pericles to find the murderer before Athens is torn apart and the old, despotic regime can reestablish itself.  At stake are Nico’s hopes, Athen’s place in history, and perhaps the future of the world as we know it.  Not to mention the life and love of a certain stubborn priestess who has ideas of her own about how to catch her father’s killer.  .  .

There’s a wonderful moment—which shouldn’t be spoiler-y to anyone who’s read the flyleaf— near the beginning of this story where Nico’s pesky little brother glances at a bit of evidence and makes a relevant and logical deduction that drastically simplifies part of the investigation.  This irritates Nico no end:  “Try not to think so much, Socrates.  It will only get you into trouble.”

This book is full of such moments—far too many to share.

Like Gary Corby’s blog, The Pericles Commission explores the living history of the time period—not just tricky names and dead facts, but the details of day to day living. The characters are real, well-rounded people (especially in Euterpe’s case) who may or may not have a stake in the events that we would consider monumental.  In fact, my two favorite secondary characters*** wouldn’t give a solid gold Athenian owl for democracy—it’s pretty much New Boss, same as the Old Boss for both—but they each have a stake in the more practical aspects of the murder.

The innumerable laws and cultural rules—by turns practical, elegant, traditional, and brutal—kept me on my toes the entire way through.  It seemed like every step Nico takes evokes a law that raises the danger levels—and it just keeps on coming.    There’s no room for modern sensibilities or forensics in this book . . . but I soon stopped thinking about fingerprints and started paying closer attention to what the clues could mean to someone with completely different customs, technology, and priorities.

Not that this helped me solve the mystery —thanks to Gary Corby’s deft explanations, I wasn’t lost or confused, but by page 189, I had no idea which of the myriad suspects had done it and had no idea how or if Nico was going to unravel it in time to save the girl, the city, or his own skin.  At best, I thought he’d manage two out of three—and I already knew that democracy was one of them . . . probably.

I like that in a mystery.  I loved it in this one.

Gary Corby knows his stuff.  Read it.

*I used Amazon, which was a major mistake.  If I’d ordered it from Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, I would have received it earlier and autographed.   As it was, Amazon held to its listed released date of November 6 and I received my copy on the 15th.  Not.  Happy.

**Which explained advanced searching in Microsoft Word and has been more useful to me than I can say.  The man can’t help but be helpful.

** Pythax is the laconic and practical captain of the city guard, who (eventually) regards Nico not unlike Nico regards Socrates.   Euterpe is a high-priced courtesan and the former mistress of the murder victim—and she is absolutely, infuriatingly, stunningly marvelous.