The Silver Pigs was the first book I read in the New Year, based on the recommendation of my great-uncle, who sent me it as well as Shadows in Bronze, the next book in the series, and The Course of Honor, a historical romance by the same author.
And really, this is the kind of book that, at first glance, sounds exactly like a story I’d love. It’s a detective story, for one, and it’s set in ancient Rome, for two. (We’ve been over my love of ancient Greece and Rome before.) I’d never heard of the combination, so I was eager to give it a go.
Alas, while it was an enjoyable read, I had a number of issues with the book that prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending it.
(Synopsis courtesy of Amazon)
When Marcus Didius Falco, a Roman “informer” who has a nose for trouble that’s sharper than most, encounters Sosia Camillina in the Forum, he senses immediately all is not right with the pretty girl. She confesses to him that she is fleeing for her life, and Falco makes the rash decision to rescue her—a decision he will come to regret. For Sosia bears a heavy burden: as heavy as a pile of stolen Imperial ingots, in fact. Matters just get more complicated when Falco meets Helena Justina, a Senator’s daughter who is connected to the very same traitors he has sworn to expose. Soon Falco finds himself swept from the perilous back alleys of Ancient Rome to the silver mines of distant Britain—and up against a cabal of traitors with blood on their hands and no compunction whatsoever to do away with a snooping plebe like Falco….
The first-person narration was surprisingly witty, and I enjoyed Falco’s wry sense of humor. His comments often had me chuckling out loud, like in this section where Falco is talking to his friend Petro, who also happens to be captain of the watch, about the girl he’s just rescued from thugs in the Forum:
I explained about her in a way that laid a great deal of emphasis on my gallant role as a rescuer of frantic nobility, and (in view of Petro’s earlier remark) less on me wrecking market stalls. It seemed best not to place him in any awkward dilemmas.
“I’ll have to take her back,” Petro said. He was nicely drunk.
“I’ll take her,” I promised. “Do me a favour. If you go it’s ‘Thanks for doing your duty, officer’; for me they may stretch to a small reward. Split?”
Lubricated by a good wine, my crony Petronius becomes a gentleman. Not many men are so considerate of the profit and loss columns of M Didius Falco’s personal accounts.
And while I was iffy on Falco at the beginning, I eventually came around to liking him and rooting for him. He and Helena in particular had some fun sparring, though admittedly I’ve seen it done better.
It’s clear Davis has done her research, and that comes across on every single page of the book. It’s chock-full of historical detail, some stuff I knew but a whole lot more that I didn’t. (Personal favorite new trivia: the contents of Lenia the laundress’s bleaching vat.)
Rome and Britain came alive on the page, and I liked getting the little insider tidbits about how it was to actually LIVE during that time, something you don’t necessarily get from other books or even movies.
However, the flipside of having an author who’s done such extensive research is that sometimes it feels like she wants to show it off. There’s a fine line between including enough concrete detail to make you feel like you’re there and dumping so much description on the reader that you feel like you’re drowning, and it’s a line that Davis leaps across many times.
Any time I spotted a block of text that covered half the page, I made it no more than two lines before I started skimming. Over-description is one of my book kryptonites; if there’s too much then you had better be 1) fantastic with it or 2) do everything else so well that I can forgive it.
It also didn’t help that every single one of the characters would start talking! Like! This! occasionally, like they were all possessed by the spirit of William Shatner. I don’t mind exclamation points, don’t get me wrong, but in this particular case it got distracting very quickly. It added extra emphasis to phrases and lines I’m not sure should’ve been emphasized. Everybody “sounds” overly emotional, whether it be excited or angry or whatever. And I’m not sure that’s how she wanted some of those characters to come across.
There were also a number of times we got a block of text summing something up instead of SHOWING us what had happened. For example, there was an entire section where Falco was undercover that, rather than letting us see what sleuthing he did, we got a page and a half of summary followed by him telling a cohort what he’d discovered. While I liked the realism of stretching the solving of the mystery over the better part of a year, it resulted in a lot of summary and exposition, which kind of eliminated some of the fun of a detective novel.
This approach also reared its ugly head during the climactic fight scene, which kicked off with the information that the fight took half an hour (BULLSHIT*) and comprised of four paragraphs of summary which ultimately committed the cardinal sin of action scenes: It was boring. No tension, no excitement, nada. I almost threw the book down at that point AND I WAS 19 PAGES FROM THE END.
If you can’t write fight scenes, AVOID THEM. Find some other way to handle the climactic confrontation. And if there has to be a fight, for God’s sake, put a LITTLE effort into making it exciting and, you know, believable.
A lot of the issues can probably be attributed to this being a first book, which is why I’m usually willing to give an author a second chance if my primary problem with their book is something that’s usually fixed by experience. Since I already have book two, I’ll most likely go ahead and read it to see if it’s improved. However, if I had to find book two myself, I probably wouldn’t bother.
*I have a very good friend who likes swords**, so I asked him for a reality check when that sentence pinged my bullshit-o-meter. He laughed for two minutes and told me the average to-the-death swordfight lasts 11 seconds. The more you know!
**By “likes swords” I mean “don’t ask him about them unless you are prepared for a 45-minute conversation during which, if you are an author, you will want to take copious notes.”