THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by Paul Doherty

18 03 2012

Rome, August, 314 AD

Back in the Rome of mother’s-boy Emperor Constantine the Great once again; and again it is that mother, Helena, who takes control when things start getting out of hand. And once more it is Claudia she turns to when a situation calls for discretion combined with a sharp eye and an even sharper brain. For Claudia is Helena’s “little mouse”, one – perhaps the only one – of her network of secret agents and spies who can go anywhere unremarked and unremembered, for no one ever notices her.

As I said in my review of Murder Imperial and The Song of the Gladiator, these are enthralling stories set in a fascinating period of history. Though no one at the time realised it, the dozen or so years before Constantine and Helena quit Rome and moved the whole show to Byzantium and established the new imperial city of Constantinople (New Rome!), were the final years of the eight centuries of Roman hegemony and civilisation. After that, for a thousand years, the Popes ruled Rome and the West; another kettle of fish altogether.

Imagine Queen Victoria, the Empress of India (yes, that was one of her titles) and her son King Edward upping sticks in the 1880s and making New Delhi the imperial capital. What would the people of Britain – after all, it was the “British” Empire – have thought?

It is essential that the people of Rome should be happy and feel secure, or as soon as Helena and her son have their backs turned, a new pretender will claim the throne in Rome.

But the people of Rome – the one that count – are not happy at all; and they feel very insecure.

On the one hand, the sons and daughters of rich senators and generals and merchants, the élite of Rome, are being systematically kidnapped, one by one, and held to ranson.

On the other hand, a group of army veterans are being murdered, equally systematically, one by one. But do these killings have anything to do with the victims having served together eighteen years previously on Hadrian’s Wall at a time when civil unrest within the Empire was causing a breakdown of defences in such far-flung outposts? It seems there may be, because the gruesome way they are being killed and mutilated is an exact replica of what the Picts did to their enemies in a blood-feud.

But before things get better, they always get worse – much worse in a Paul Doherty story! More people die, and Murranus, the champion gladiator Claudia believes to have retired and plans to marry, ends up back in the arena.

I like Claudia, and find myself identifying with her completely. So completely that I begin to wonder whether I lived one of my previous lives in Rome during that period. But then really good historical novels always do that to me!

And the “Queen of the Night” of the title? That is not Claudia, and nor is it – as one might expect – Helena. The Queen of the Night is a stunningly beautiful deaf-mute ex-courtesan who, like Helena herself, hails from distant Britain, and is always there in the background accompanied by the eunuch who interprets the sign-language she uses. But who is she really, Claudia wonders, and what part, if any, does she play in all this?

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