ROMANITAS, as the first book of a trilogy, is toying with a number of central themes.
There are actually 3 great empires covering the world - the Roman which now spreads into North America, parts of Africa and China. Sinoa - parts of China, parts of South-Asia, up into Mongolia and Russia and Nionia - spreading it seems almost from Japan, covering Australasia and elsewhere.
The empires all exist in a timeframe that feels a bit like current day; it was a car accident that killed Marcus' parents after all; but the technology is played with a bit in ROMANITAS as well - all the cities in the Roman Empire have massive communication screens, mechanised crucifixes dot the banks of the Thames. There is also a bit of woo woo - or the other worldly - Una, after all, can look inside other people's minds.
For all the sweeping nature of the world being built in this first book, the "action" of the book is actually pretty restricted. It centres on events surrounding 3 teenagers from very different backgrounds who are unexpectedly thrust together. Marcus Novius, orphaned Imperial heir. Una, watching the funeral ceremony on one of the giant screens in London, loathes everything Marcus stands for. She is on her way to rescue her brother, both siblings separated for most of their lives. Sulien is about to be crucified, falsely accused of rape - brother and sister are slaves, coming from a desperately poor and cruel background. As unlikely as it seems, all three become fugitives together.
In the initial stages of the novel, the reader is thrust immediately into this unexpected, mixed up world. That's slightly disconcerting and weird and you're immediately engaged, trying to understand what strange world is this. The book quickly shape shifts, however, into a sort of journey novel - the story of the 3 teenagers and how they meet and then escape their individual fates takes up a pretty hefty component of the central part of the book and the alternative world sort of disappears a bit. Whilst there is quite a bit of tension built up in this escape tale, it does move at snails pace. There is a then a final flurry of activity and some slightly odd positioning of explanation towards the end of the novel (for example the conspiracy against Marcus really only gets explained right at the end - giving it a bit of an afterthought feeling).
Strangely enough for what started out as promising an alternative world scenario, and sort of ends up delivering a form of mixed reality; ROMANITAS morphs into a reasonable character study where the opportunity to get to know the 3 main characters becomes the focus, and even the supporting cast of characters are fairly well-drawn and involving. Add to that an engaging prose style, if you're willing to allow the Empire to be a mishmash of odds and ends from now and then; then there's probably enough to make you look to the second book to see where the current day Roman Empire is headed.
The second Book in the Trilogy - Rome Burning was released in 2007. You might also want to visit the website for the trilogy at http://www.romanitas.com/
EXIT MUSIC - Ian Rankin
There is a mandatory retirement age of 60 in the Scottish Police Force, so Rebus is finally on his way out. Weird really that with all the suspensions, life threatening events and the number of times that he's annoyed Siobhan to the point of shooting him, it's age that's going to see Rebus move on. At the very least you'd think something spectacular. Depending on how Rankin feels about his creation, I guess he could equally have killed him off with a massive whiskey, beer and fish and chip induced heart attack. But Rebus is alive at the end of Exit Music and this is his retirement book - not his total end.
Starting off the book with the same first line of the first Rebus book, Knots and Crosses, Rankin proceeds to give Rebus a low-key, almost dignified final exit. Well apart from a last minute suspension, the sniff of an allegation of an assault charge pending for a while, and an uncertain future that is.
The final case that Rebus and Siobhan handle is the bashing murder of a dissident Russian poet. It looks like a mugging gone wrong, but there is a high-level Russian delegation in town, keen to bring business to Scotland and the local politicians and bankers are keen to get the investigation wrapped up and "put away" out of sight. Big "Ger" Cafferty and his presence around the edges of the Russian delegation is just one more thing that makes Rebus suspect that there is a lot more to the mugging than it seems and a second, very brutal death, just seals the suspicion for Rebus.
There's an elegant balancing of focus in EXIT MUSIC. Rebus isn't fading into the background, but then again Siobhan's not going anywhere either. As Rebus is suspended and goes "solo" Siobhan steps out into the light just that little bit more and, bless her, she does her own bit of bucking authority in her own way. She's definitely a bit quieter about the rebellion than the old dinosaur but she's just as effective. The other elegant act of EXIT MUSIC is to cast a light on the delicate (and frequently lost) balance of politics and business, and just how much influence money can have in all the wrong and right places. It's no co-incidence that Rankin has recently been in Melbourne as patron of the Crime and Justice festival (Crime Fiction and Social Justice issues being discussed), as the one thing that the Rebus books do so well is ask the reader to contemplate the subject matter - the circumstances in which the crime is committed and the criminals are created.
Finally Big "Ger" and Rebus. There's a lot of unfinished business there. Will Rankin go there, post retirement. Who knows. EXIT MUSIC tantalises but doesn't reveal.
LIBERATION ROAD - David L Robbins
From the Book: 1944. The Allies battle through Nazi-Occupied France, only the Red Ball Express - a massive convoy of trucks that serves as a fragile lifeline to the expanding front - supplies this immense effort.
Against this hellish backdrop the lives of two men are changed for ever.
LIBERATION ROAD is billed as a novel of World War II, but it's really a story of two men. Rabbi Ben Kahn is a Chaplain with the American Army in France - his personal crusade is to find out what happened to his son - a missing fighter pilot. Joe Amos is a black truck driver on the Red Ball, supplying the military machine, somehow not quite equal to those he is fighting with. Whilst Joe and Ben, in separate parts of the same theatre for most of the story, struggle with their own personal demons, an American man makes his fortune in the Black Market in Paris. Is this mysterious Chien Blanc Ben's missing son?
The concentration of LIBERATION ROAD is on Joe and Ben's individual wars. There's a very intimate, personal feeling to their stories which makes this the sort of book that the characters are absolutely central to. There's little by way of coverage of the full horror of the Second World War to the local people, or any acknowledgment of the rest of the Allies fighting. There are some small cameo's by two local French people in Joe's story - a romantic attachment in particular which could be seen as poignant on the face of it, but as it ends, there's little opportunity to understand what war has done to those locals trying to simply survive in such appalling circumstances. Whilst Joe and Ben struggle with the war that goes on around them - how to cope with the divide between white soldiers and black truck drivers; how to comfort the badly wounded and the dying; in Paris, Chien Blanc ruthlessly makes his money and lives as high a life as you possibly could under an occupation. The reader knows he is an American, but who is he really?
Ben and Joe slowly move towards each other (without knowing it), until a climax point of the book where the advance of the American Army is temporarily interrupted with profound results for both men. Ultimately, with LIBERATION ROAD the reader has to connect completely with Ben and Joe, be involved in their stories, their war; care whether Ben can ever find the truth about his son; whether Joe stays alive and gets home to his family; how their individual experience will affect both men for the rest of their lives.
DEARLY DEVOTED DEXTER - Jeff Lindsay
Dearly Devoted Dexter is the second book from Jeff Lindsay "staring" forensic blood splatter specialist and serial killer Dexter Morgan. Dexter is, by his own observation, not exactly a normal human being. He has a busy sideline in righteous serial killings - he kills people who undoubtedly have avoided retribution for crimes they have committed. Dexter and his darker side "The Dark Passenger" work very hard at their chosen craft and Dexter spends a large amount of time explaining himself, his motives and his methods in an internal voice, shared with the reader.
Dexter was adopted as a small child and his foster father, a cop himself, taught him all sorts of tricks whilst grooming him for his role of avenging angel. His sister, Deborah, was groomed for a role in the police force and it is her Dexter is having lunch with one day (she knows all about Dexter's extra-curricula activities) when they are called to a particularly gruesome crime scene. Dexter develops a sneaking sense of regard for a serial offender who has a line in gruesome that makes Dexter look like a bit of an amateur. Meanwhile Dexter is quietly executing his own plans for some retribution against a pair of child molesters. Unfortunately this plan is being seriously interfered with by local Police Sergeant Doakes who is absolutely convinced that Dexter is up to something and undertakes some pretty close surveillance.
Dexter's own crime scenes are elaborate and graphically described but that is absolutely nothing compared to the crimes that he finds himself having to investigate, firstly, by happy co-incidence with Doakes, which gets Doakes off his own back and away from his own activities. Secondly because his sister's own personal life is involved.
As in the first Dexter book (Darkly Dreaming Dexter) there is a heavy dose of black humour in DEARLY DEVOTED DEXTER. Dexter is very self-deprecating, whilst simultaneously firmly convinced of the necessity of his actions. Nearly all of the insights into Dexter and how or why he does what he does are through Dexter's own internal musings. This provides an unusual insight into the mind of Dexter the serial killer but I could see how after a couple of books you could possibly be wishing that Dexter would just stop talking for just a few pages. Black humour, slightly on the heavy handed side with a very unusual central character, it will be interesting to see how long the Dexter series can continue.