Kelli Stanley is arguably best known for CITY OF DRAGONS, which takes place in 1940s-era San Francisco, and is the first of what hopefully will be many more Miranda Corbie books to come. But that novel was preceded by the award-winning NOX DORMIENDA, a "Roman noir" style mystery set during the Roman conquest of Britain, which introduced readers to Julius Alpinius Classicianus Favonianus, more commonly known as Arcturus, the medicus or physician, of Agricola --- the Roman governor of Britannia. NOX DORMIENDA was a dazzling work of fiction, and while CITY OF DRAGONS is understandably gathering the lion's share of attention at the moment, Stanley is not ready to leave the world of the Roman Empire just yet. THE CURSE-MAKER, her second Arcturus novel, has just been published. It is every bit as engrossing as CITY OF DRAGONS, if not more so.
THE CURSE-MAKER begins with Arcturus weary in mind, body and soul. He has just completed an exhaustive four-month military campaign, which, while successful overall, was a disaster for him personally. Agricola offers Arcturus and his wife, Gwyna, the use of the governor's villa in the city of Aquae Sulis (today known as Bath), where the ill come to bathe in the restorative waters. Given that he is troubled by what he perceives to be a recent failure, this trip is exactly what Arcturus needs. Moreover, his wife has become withdrawn and distant, and it seems that Gwnya is haunted by a secret of her own.
But what Arcturus and Gwnya encounter there is anything but restorative. Their arrival coincides with the discovery of the strangled body of Rufus Bibax, a popular local curse-maker whose abilities were in high demand just before his involuntary demise. Arcturus's initial reaction is to let the local authorities deal with the matter, yet as more violent deaths occur, he finds himself reluctantly drawn into the investigation --- especially after one murder that literally leads right to Arcturus's doorstep.
It seems as if each new day brings a fresh body, and there is no lack of suspects. Potential culprits include several priests, a scheming widow with an extremely healthy libido, and a widely-known necromancer who likes to delve into areas much more tangible than the spirit world, to name a few. There is also an abandoned mine near the edge of the city that may not be so abandoned after all. Even though there are almost as many motives as there are suspects, Arcturus knows he is getting close when the governor's villa --- including Gwnya and himself --- is itself the target of an attack, but this only strengthens Arcturus's resolve. In a classic (in every sense of the word) gathering of suspects and witnesses, Arcturus reveals the actor --- or actors --- behind the murders, even as a final act of desperation has yet to take place.
In demeanor, Arcturus is closer to a cross between Philip Marlowe and Gregory House than Marcus Welby, an aspect of his personality that serves him well given the violent times in which he resides. But while Arcturus is the protagonist, the real star of this award-winning series is the Roman Empire and its mores and customs, which Stanley lovingly and accurately portrays down to the last well-shod sandal. I thought I had caught her in an anachronism --- I was sure of it, in fact --- until I did a bit of research on my own and walked away chastened and all the wiser. Stanley is also a master of dry wit, and through Arcturus, she unleashes a plethora of subtle barbs, many of which are as relevant to our own times as they were back then.
However, the most striking element of THE CURSE-MAKER is that, as different as Arcturus's world may be from our own, the human emotions and desires that motivate our baser actions haven't changed much at all.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011