Go to Homepage   Mary Reed & Eric Mayer: Four for a Boy

 

Crescent Blues Book ViewsPoisoned Pen Press (Hardcover), ISBN 1590580311
A prequel to Reed and Mayer's "John the Eunuch" series, Four for a Boy takes us back to John's life as a slave to emperor-in-waiting Justinian in 6th century Constantinople. Justinian calls upon John to investigate the murder of Hypatius, a benefactor struck down in the vestibule of the Great Church. Current Emperor Justin assigns Felix, his excubitor, to assist John in his efforts -- or perhaps, John suspects, to keep an eye on him. Distrusted by one another and by everyone else, John and Felix stumble through interrogations of shopkeepers, beggars, and aristocrats to little avail, until a series of events lead them to a surprising conclusion.

Book: mary reed and eric meyer, four for a boy
The historical milieu of the story lends Four for a Boy an interesting flavor. The characters exist in a real setting and interact with well-known historical figures, most notably Theodora, the hated consort of future Emperor Justinian. Reed and Mayer render the tone of everyday life in the Byzantine Empire with attention to detail. They describe the minute contents of shops, the clothing worn by mendicants and the designs carved in the Church silver. The reader sees what John sees.

The characters in Four for a Boy fail to make themselves so clear. Reed and Mayer tantalize us with snippets of John's past, but leave us wondering how exactly he came to be castrated and enslaved. Will there be a prequel to the prequel? John tutors the daughter of a Senator, Lady Anna, who harbors romantic feelings for him. What does she see in him? Why does she spurn the marriage offers of suitable aristocrats, insisting she will never marry? We don't know. Lady Anna's character is never given the third dimension that would make her motives more apparent. Even John's sidekick Felix, a burly military type, rarely steps outside his cardboard boundaries.

The religious ambiguity of the era (Christianity vs. paganism) makes a fascinating backdrop to John's tale. Those who hold pagan beliefs must keep them quiet, pretending to be faithful to the officially favored Christian god. John's tendency to call upon pagan gods when irritated prompts Felix to suggest he swear in Egyptian, lest his unconventional habits result in unpleasant consequences. At one point John visits a well-hidden Mithraeum, an underground temple dedicated to the god Mithra, much favored by military men. The glimpse of the rituals of this little known ancient faith proved more absorbing than the resolution of the mystery.

Three books preceded Four for a Boy: One for Sorrow, Two for Joy and Three for a Letter. In them, John pursues Byzantine miscreants in his capacity as Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian -- a position he would never have attained but for his success in solving the mystery of Four for a Boy.

Jodi Forschmiedt

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