Athens of 612 AD is a decadent and vulnerable city, threatened by starving barbarian tribes. Richard Blake’s protagonist, Aelric, a senator of the Roman Empire of British origin, is ordered to divert his galley to the threatened city. He finds an explosive religious dispute underway, an unexplained corpse and the possibility of pagan ritual killing. The Ghosts of Athens is steeped in horror, mystery, intrigue and suspicion in a place that is a ghost of its glorious former self. Set in a little-explored period of history which Blake knows thoroughly, he crafts a suspenseful and fascinating historical thriller, in which it is difficult to discern who the villains really are.
Blake delivers believable historical characters. Aelric is intelligent, wary and sympathetic. Priscus, his travelling companion, is a scheming and dissolute Roman general, as disgusting as Aelric is likeable. When youths bait a stray dog, Priscus calls softly, ‘Such wasted effort when there are people here just calling out to be massacred.’ Even so, Priscus is depicted in complex shades of grey. As for the novel’s romantic interest, Euphemia; is she good or evil, innocent or villain?
Complex mysteries are resolved, and en route, there is a fearsome glimpse of the Barbarian camp outside Athens’s walls; a decaying residency which serves up poisonous dishes such as fetid river frogs and un-gutted stuffed dormice; a library that matches descriptions to be found of the library in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose; and terrifying tunnels, caves and tombs.
The Ghosts of Athens is an intelligent and atmospheric historical fiction, well-researched and executed and an intriguing read. It is the fifth in a series.