In spite of the publisher's name and the notation "A Novel of Romantic Suspense" on the book jacket, The Course of Honor is not a mystery. (It was, however, shelved in the mystery section of two of my local bookstores.) This book is an historical novel and a love story.
The British author Lindsey Davis has established ownership of mysteries set in first century Rome (during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian) in the same way Ellis Peters did with 12th century British monasteries and Anne Perry with Victorian England. Her one-of-a-kind detective hero, Marcus Didius Falco, was first introduced in the delightful and witty The Silver Pigs (even the list of characters is a hoot!) and has continued to solve crime, make some friends and more enemies, and crack jokes in several equally entertaining sequels. (If you haven't discovered her Falco mysteries, I strongly urge you to search them out in bookstores and libraries. You'll want to read them in order if possible because they build on each other.)
Ms. Davis is not only an author; she is also a classicist. (She's currently president of the Classical Association in Britain.) While Falco is an anachronism (he's a rough-edged 1940's style detective), her mysteries' historical foundation testifies to solid scholarship.
Ms. Davis's depth of knowledge of the period is evident in >b>The Course of Honor. The heroine and main character, Caenis, was an actual historical personage. She is mentioned briefly in the Oxford Historical Dictionary and the Encyclopedia Britannica. (She is also alluded to in The Silver Pigs and makes a cameo appearance in Time to Depart.) She was one half of a love affair that spanned decades and continued till death. Romance novels can only hint at such long-term devotion. It's no wonder that Ms. Davis was drawn to flesh out such a heroine in such an era. While no details are known of Caenis's life, she witnessed a long succession of significant historical events and must have been a remarkable woman.
The story begins in the year 31 A.D. during the reign of the Emperor
Tiberius. Titus Flavius Vespasianus, known to his family as Vespasian, in
the company of his older brother Sabinus, a Roman Senator, comes upon the
slave girl Caenis, cooking her lunch of sausages in a nearly deserted
palace. After a short exchange with the slave girl, Vespasian think,
"What an interesting girl!"
Caenis was born a slave in the palace, but when she was a child, her intelligence was recognized, and she has been well educated so that she can work as a scribe.
The unexpected urgent need for a scribe brings her to the lady Antonia, wife of Tiberius's dead brother and the mother of Claudius, the future emperor. Antonia appreciates Caenis's character and abilities, and Caenis becomes a member of her household and one of her most trusted servants which eventually leads to Caenis's freedom.
Vespasian has embarked on the cursus honorum (course of honor) which is the succession of offices in public service. This requires his frequent absences from Rome. Because his rank forbids him from marrying a freedwoman, Caenis knows that any relationship between them will inevitably be limited because Vespasian must marry a woman of good family.
As a freedwoman Caenis continues to work for Antonia where she has a rare insight into many of the inner secrets of the decadent Roman government. As Vespasian advances towards the upper ranks, Caenis, too, gains influence. Through all the years and over the course of many lengthy separations, their love survives.
The basic theme is that two honorable people can recognize their true soulmate even in the moral cesspool that was first century Rome. It is not only Vespasian who has embarked on the course of honor but Caenis, too, who, in spite of her lower rank, is a person of rare nobility of character while most of the nobility were of the lowest rank of morality.
In Caenis and Vespasian, Ms. Davis has created two multi-dimensional characters. While the history is interesting (if you've watched I, Claudius on PBS, you'll recognize some of the events), this is primarily a character-focused story. In Caenis and Vespasian, goodness really does triumph over evil. This only mystery is how could they (and their love) have survived the times.
Caenis and Vespasian aren't cut from the usual he's-handsome-she's-beautiful hero and heroine mold that romance readers are familiar with. Caenis's attractiveness is primarily in her intelligence and her character. Vespasian's attraction is his forceful personality and rough honesty. Even if this pushes the edge of what readers might expect in a love story, that's no flaw. Few stock romance conventions have the appeal of a tale of a real deep and enduring love such as this one.
There are many reasons to read this book: the story's interesting, the characters are lively, the writing's excellent, there are innumerable glimpses of Ms. Davis's delicious wit. And in a time when romance publishers avoid books that have "too much history" in them (how can there be "too much" in an historical?), it's a pleasure to read a story where the historical setting isn't just an excuse to dress the people in costume.
There are many hardback books on bookstore shelves right now that I would
advise you to either borrow from your local libraries or wait till they
come out in paperback. The Course of Honor is a welcome exception. I'm
recommending you buy and read it now. I think you'll agree with
Vespasian's original reaction: "What an interesting girl!"