Rubies of the Viper Paperback – 23 Feb 2010
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About the Author
When Martha was seven, she traveled with her parents to Italy, where the ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Roman Forum made an indelible impression on her. As they walked the streets of Pompeii, she informed her parents that she had been there before. It was all entirely familiar. You’ll find photos of her from that first visit to Pompeii on her website: marthamarks.com. As a teenager, she devoured every available novel about ancient Rome. As an adult, she read newer fiction set in that time, revisited the same ancient sites and others, and studied ancient history and cultures. Rubies of the Viper, its sequel, The Viper Amulet, and her work-in-progress, The Ruby Ring, are the direct results of the fascination that began on that childhood trip to Italy. Years later, she earned a Ph.D. at Northwestern University and taught on the faculties of Northwestern University and Kalamazoo College. She and her husband live in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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Characterization is fine for most supporting characters but not so good for the main one. Theodosia, the street-smart protagonist, managed to survive humble and unscathed, living alone at sixteen in a Roman slum, yet the moment she inherits amazing wealth and position, she starts acting bratty and downright reckless. So, as I progressed through the story, the heroine's inconsistent behaviour became irritating and, despite her appalling ordeal, I felt no sympathy for her plight. The main issue for me is that all the big, life-altering events are entirely due to Theodosia's monumental idiocy, stubbornness and refusal to follow good advice.
The pace is a bit uneven. I'm a sensitive reader with a vivid imagination. For the first half of the story, I was bothered by the unremitting gore and brutality that, to me, are overpowering to the detriment of other aspects of daily life. By the 60% mark, the story moves away from Rome and follows Alexander, the Greek steward of Theodosia's villa and estate. I loved Alexander's portrayal. He's a fully fleshed out, complex character who really made things interesting. The pace also picks up, where it had been dragging before. By the time of the musical competition, I was ready to forgive the author for the drawn-out melodrama of the Carcer. That whole section is superb and full of dramatic tension.
The plot is action-driven and, for the most part, it works. However, a huge suspension of belief is required when it comes to Theodosia's physical prowess with knives and horses. I won't discuss too many specifics, but the horse sequences are wildly improbable, and here I speak from long experience. From galloping bareback in a thunderstorm to how much one can push an exhausted horse, to effectively riding an animal used to pulling a cart, it was all high fantasy and almost cartoonish. Also, one has to remember that, in Roman times, all horse breeds were small, barely over 14 hands high, and comparable to our large ponies, as evidenced by friezes and equestrian statues of the times.
Despite my stated criticism, I enjoyed this book. If you like historical sagas with strong-minded characters and an abundance of political intrigue, backstabbing and physical action, give this lively tale a try.
Theodosia is now a very wealthy woman. A very wealthy unmarried woman. She is aware that while she has inherited the estate, she will need to prove that she can manage it. Theodosia is acutely aware that her brother’s murder has not been solved: is she also at risk?
‘I’ve got to find out who did kill Gaius, if only to protect myself.’
In the first of a planned trilogy, Ms Marks introduces several memorable (fictional) characters as well as involving a number of historical figures. The intrigue of imperial Rome, the class consciousness of the patricians and the role of slaves are all part of the setting. Theodosia learns some things quickly but is naïve and impetuous. These attributes will prove dangerous.
This novel contains aspects of both mystery and romance, as well as plenty of action. While Theodosia is an interesting character, I was torn between admiration and despair by some of her actions. Of the other characters, I found Alexander the most intriguing.
While some aspects of the story worked better for me than others, I kept reading keen to see how this instalment would end. And yes, we do learn who killed Gaius Terentius Varro (which will probably not come as a surprise to most readers) but there are plenty of other twists and turns in the tale including a high stakes competition before Nero towards the end.
Did I enjoy the novel? Mostly. I certainly enjoyed it enough to start reading the sequel. I’m really keen to find out how it will all end.
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