In this thriller, set in fifth-century Rome, rivals race to possess Christ’s crown of thorns.
When Roman Gen. Flavius Aetius dies, his son, Gaudentius, discovers the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the day he was crucified. Gaudentius’ mother fears that the relic might fall into Emperor Valentinian’s hands, and so she entrusts it to Senator Felix with the hope that he’ll find a way to smuggle it out of Rome to Constantinople to present it to Patriarch Anatolius. But Senator Felix is murdered, and so the perilous task falls to his daughter, Arria, and her husband, the Frank Noble Garic. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones who know of the crown’s existence; Marcella, Arria’s half sister, and Drusus, a military commander, pursue it as well. Drusus was once Arria’s husband until he nearly died in battle, and Marcella is resentful of her alienation from Arria’s family and the death of her beloved Severus, whose murder she blames on Garic. In addition, the partnership between Marcella and Drusus is a complicated one—they are both opportunists who have ample reason to distrust and resent each other. Ripley Miller (On the Edge of the Sunrise, 2015) astutely brings to life a Rome teetering precariously on the brink of collapse, increasingly threatened at its borders. She also portrays the tension between paganism and Christianity with subtlety and nuance. This is the second installment of a series, and while it stands well enough on its own—the author makes repeated references to the back story provided in the first book—it’s worth reading the two as a pair. As in the opener, the attention to historical detail creates atmospheric authenticity in this sequel. But while the prose can be elegant, the dialogue is sometimes too Elizabethan: “ ‘What?’ she demanded. ‘Your gaze tells me that something is on your mind—and so soon after our lovemaking?’ ” Nevertheless, the plot advances energetically, and the combination of political and romantic drama—and spiritual as well—is rousing. The reader should be glad to have read this volume and eager for a third.
Intelligent and artfully crafted historical fiction about a religious relic.