Alexandria by Lindsey Davis

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Alexandria by Lindsey Davis

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Natalie Baker
Reviewed by Natalie Baker
Summary: Falco's nineteenth outing still feels fresh, his trademark jokes and acerbic wit are in full evidence and the historical detail, detective work and pure fun are as neatly balanced as ever.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Century
ISBN: 978-1846052873

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Marcus Didius Falco, a professional informer working for the Emperor Vespasian, has been to many places in his time, but for once he's on a family outing. Well, mostly. An 'informal commission' (read: no money) from Vespasian finds Falco at the Great Library in Alexandria uncovering his usual brand of intrigue, murder and incongruous mayhem. And getting to know a crocodile.

This is the nineteenth novel in Lindsey Davis' popular Falco series, and as such it's impossible to describe the books without spoiling a good deal of what happens in earlier stories. Although each mystery is self-contained, the family elements always build up. This is not to say that you cannot read this book as a self-contained novel – you can, and I've read many of the Falco books out of order (and probably missed one or two, even now) but it's worth starting with The Silver Pigs and Venus in Copper, the first two books in the series, just to get a good grip on the main characters.

I enjoy the plots – and the book is stuffed full of plot - but for me, it's the characters that make the novels: Falco is his usual dry-witted, slightly world-weary self with a talent for being in the wrong place at the right time – or at least, most of the time. Behind every man is a better woman and in this case, it's Falco's wife, the inimitable Helena Justina, currently on a mission to see the seven wonders of the world, including the Pharos at Alexandria – which has an important role to play in the novel, and the Pyramids at Giza, although as the action hots up in Alexandria, will they ever make it that far? Then there's Helena's brother Aulus, undertaking studies at the library and from time to time helping Falco out, Falco's uncle Fulvius (the one they never talk about) providing accommodation and a number of shady dealings, and Falco's father, who was forbidden to come. So naturally, he turns up. There's a lot of bickering, plenty of hurt feelings, short romantic interludes – invariably interrupted - and surprises around every corner.

Then there's the cast for the action: the Library has its own share of scholars, some dustier than others: sycophantic lawyers, astronomers of few words, a zookeeper with a full and busy zoo, and students who, of course, are doing many things, although studying is rarely one of them. It's a mark of Davis' writing that she can make the ancient world seem perfectly familiar, from grumbling about being a tourist to the travails of family, in a way that blends in seamlessly with the weight of historical detail (and historical liberties, also). It all adds up to a joyous romp through the streets of ancient Alexandria, with a good helping of cynicism to keep events spiced up.

Davis' style is fast-paced and keeps things moving, and this makes the books great for reading aloud. They're just as good when enjoyed in silence – although I find I end up giggling to myself far too often for it to be real silence. As with any long-running series, the characters end up familiar enough to be old friends, and each trip out with them is a pleasure. It's not necessary to get all the Classical in-jokes to enjoy the books, although it's almost definitely one of their main attractions. For fans of Falco, this instalment doesn't disappoint.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Fans of fiction set in Roman times might also like to check out Simon Scarrow's books. It's a different time frame, but the same location: you might enjoy Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft.

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