A dead man falls from the sky and lands at the feet of Nicolas son of Sophroniscus the sculptor one Athens morning in 461AD. The body is that of Ephialtes, creator of the world’s first, and still fledgling, democracy and his death could mean civil war. In the absence of a family member to do the job Pericles, a politician and fellow supporter of the move towards democracy, commissions Nicolas to investigate Ephialtes’ death with the hopes of quickly being able to discover the responsible party and bring them to justice. Of course the most obvious suspects are those old-guard politicians who weren’t to keen on handing political power over to the people, so Nicolas is literally putting his life at risk by taking on the job. However he’s young and idealistic and also sees it as the perfect opportunity to get a foothold in politics himself which would mean he doesn’t have to follow in his father’s profession.
Corby has woven and intriguing and plausible fictional tale around the real events of the time in this debut historical mystery. There’s a large cast of characters (helpfully listed at the beginning of the book along with the phonetic pronunciation of their names) at all levels of Athenian society and so we are introduced to many aspects of life in ancient Greece. Slaves, prostitutes, artisans, soldiers, businessmen, politicians and even a priestess in training are all woven into the story to provide lots of interesting background to the old-fashioned whodunnit at the heart of this book. My knowledge of this period of history borders on non-existent so I am unqualified to comment on the veracity of those details but I can attest to their ability to sustain my interest. At the very beginning of the story I worried that it was going to be too much like a history lecture but after the initial slightly awkward exposition of the setting, this information was pretty well incorporated into the ongoing events.
Nicolas is an engaging character with plenty of room to develop in future books should they arise. Having just left the equivalent of the army he wants to make his way in the world by doing something other than follow in his father’s footsteps, though he loves his parents and doesn’t wish to hurt his father’s feelings. He gets himself into all sorts of scrapes as he tackles his commission because, at the outset of the book anyway, he’s very naive. Fortunately he gets some assistance from a range of unlikely helpers including his younger brother Socrates (yes that Socrates), the daughter Ephialtes fathered with his mistress and a soldier/slave called Pythax. Nicolas’ relationships with these three in particular provide much of the humour that threads through the book which balances nicely with the mounting pile of dead bodies and serious political issues being decided along the way.
My own preference in historical fiction is for there to be some nod to the period in the language used as it helps me to become absorbed in the ‘historicalness’ of the setting and Corby has eschewed any pretence of doing that here. It’s a perfectly valid choice of course as the people would have been speaking incomprehensible ancient Greek not any version of English but I did find it that bit harder to pretend I was wandering in the Athens being depicted than I would have if thoroughly modern language wasn’t being used. That’s a minor quibble though and overall I found the book a surprisingly light and fast read. Its combination of gentle humour, characters with real human foibles and abundance of juicy historical fact and legend should appeal to a wide variety of readers. If you’re already a fan of historical fiction I’d definitely recommend it.
Gary Corby lives in Sydney and blogs at A dead man fell from the sky. The second book in the series is called The Ionia Sanction and is due out next year.
Kerrie already reviewed The Pericles Commission earlier this year
my rating 3.5/5 (my rating scale is explained here)
Publisher Penguin 
Length 281 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Source I bought it