Sam Starbuck has been one of my favorite authors for many, many years, and I knew well enough that I would adore this story that I saved it for myself as a special treat.
It didn’t disappoint. Mr. Starbuck here, as always, has an incredibly deft hand with dialogue, and writes sex scenes that grow organically from and with the story and the characters, and the end result is brilliantly engrossing and alive.
Here’s the summary, copy-pasted from Riptide Publishing:
Senator Marcus Brutus has spent his life serving Rome, but it’s difficult to be a patriot when the Republic, barely recovered from a civil war, is under threat by its own leader. Brutus’s one retreat is his country home, where he steals a few precious days now and then with Cassius, his brother-in-law and fellow soldier—and the one he loves above all others. But the sickness at the heart of Rome is spreading, and even Brutus’s nights with Cassius can’t erase the knowledge that Gaius Julius Caesar is slowly becoming a tyrant.
Cassius fears both Caesar’s intentions and Brutus’s interest in Tiresias, the villa’s newest servant. Tiresias claims to be the orphaned son of a minor noble, but his secrets run deeper, and only Brutus knows them all. Cassius, intent on protecting the Republic and his claim to Brutus, proposes a dangerous conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. After all, if Brutus—loved and respected by all—supports it, it’s not murder, just politics.
Now Brutus must return to Rome and choose: not only between Cassius and Tiresias, but between preserving the fragile status quo of Rome and killing a man who would be emperor.
I always think it’s really remarkable when an author takes a story that most people know, in one form or another, and gives it a new and rich life that is denied to it in its best-known form, which is exactly what Mr. Starbuck has done here. I’m not at all a Classicist, either by education or inclination—I’ve read a lot of Mary Renault and I have the kind of vague familiarity with the 44 B.C. election cycle that one acquires over the course of being raised by feral Shakespeareans, but that’s about it—but the level of daily-life detail and three-dimensional character interaction present in this story completely transcends the idea of a story set against the backdrop of Caesar’s downfall. Caesar’s downfall is no backdrop: it’s woven intimately into all of Cassius, Brutus, and Tiresias’s interactions, even when it is not their subject; it weighs upon them and drives them, no matter how they may try to stand at a remove. And Tiresias, this total wildcard of a character with a portentous name, is beautifully crafted, and a wonderful surprise.
One of the things that’s often the trickiest to handle in fiction set in a different cultural or historical context is that the things the characters take for granted are very much not going to be the same things the reader takes for granted; but the characters don’t have any reason to make the differences explicit, since the differences are, within the characters’ points-of-view, transparent. I’m always interested to see how authors handle this as a narrative problem, and Mr. Starbuck has done an absolutely beautiful job. Rome’s sexual mores are very cleverly handled—of course; I’d expect nothing less—but in a lot of ways I think the strongest example of Mr. Starbuck’s skill with this issue is the early scene in which Brutus finds Tiresias in the stable. This scene is deeply painful to read, but utterly believable from both Tiresias and Brutus as characters, even in the parts where Brutus, the point-of-view character, is really in the wrong; and it does a tremendously good job of wrestling with an issue that we are as readers accustomed to wrestling with in a modern vocabulary without using that vocabulary as a crutch.
Mr. Starbuck also beautifully sketches his secondary characters: Porcia—Brutus’s wife—though she only appears in person briefly, is particularly delightful, and her relationship with Brutus is quite moving.
Overall, really powerful and gripping, the bitter along with the sweet. Highly recommended.
Sam Starbuck maintains a blog and website at Extribulum. You can pick up “The City War” from Riptide Publishing, either on its own ($4.99) or as part of the Warriors of Rome anthology ($19.97). I am reviewing my own copy of the stand-alone, and I don’t get paid either for this review or for you clicking on those links.