Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: The Mosaic of Shadows by Tom Harper

Title: The Mosaic of Shadows
Author: Tom Harper
Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Published: 2005
Pages: 288

Rating: 5 out of 10

In 1096 Constantinople, at the heart of the Byzantine Empire, the royal court is shaken by an assassination attempt on the emperor. Demetrios Askiates, a former bounty-hunter now turned detective, is hired to find the killer, along with the help of the fierce royal guard.

Books about the Byzantine Empire are not all that common, unfortunately. I love the culture of it - part Middle Eastern, part European. So needless to say, I was excited to read this book. It turned out to be pretty average, and while I'm not sorry I read it, I most likely won't pick up the next one in the series.

The main problem I had with The Mosaic of Shadows was that it was so slow moving. Many things are very drawn out, and characters are always discovering some breathlessly exciting puzzle piece to the mystery, and then leaving the scene. It's mostly to return home for the night and get some sleep. I know that people have to sleep at some point - but it happened often, and I felt that it really hindered the feeling of excitement from being allowed to emerge.
I certainly wouldn't call this book exciting, or a page turner. It was a book I kept putting down without looking forward to coming back to.

I also really couldn't see Demetrios as a detective. He just wasn't believable in that regard. The reasons why the royal investigators themselves would hire him in particular are never given, and frankly we never see any spark of brilliance that would lead us to think it was because he had a dazzling crime-solving resume. Demetrios never once recalls other crimes or detective work he has done, or anything of the sort, which I thought odd. He does, on the other hand, refer quite often to his previous job as a bounty hunter. From what he tells us, it seems that he was good at it even if he disliked the work. Alright, so he's a fighter, then? Well, no. Demetrios never kills anyone, and seems to avoid violence. The few times he is forced into physical combat, he is pitifully overpowered, and quite easily. So he doesn't come across as an assassin either.
To me, Demetrios just seemed like an average, usual guy trying his best to solve a mystery.
I would have thought that he would use his wits and quick thinking to tackle the clues and witnesses, as it seems the palace's way of doing things is through intimidation and force. Isn't that why they hired him, after all?
Demetrios does rely on reason and logic to get somewhere in the case, but the problem is that it doesn't work, especially whenever they encounter actual people.
Sigurd, a huge royal guard, usually sees that Demetrios's calm reasoning is getting nowhere, and does something drastically threatening or violent, which always works. While Demetrios politely knocks on doors (no success), Sigurd plows through them in a chaotic shower of splinters and bellowed threats (success!).
Demetrios' attempts at having an "interrogation" were laughable. Hasn't Harper ever watched ANY crime dramas? When it proves useless, Sigurd cuts in with a huge axe, some light torture, and threats of making a eunuch of the man right there. Success again - the man relents and tells them all that he knows.
I don't think the author intended to give the message that violence goes further than intelligence (or at least I hope he didn't), but that's how it came across.

Anna, a female doctor who Demetrios falls for, seemed very modern to me in both her attitude and her profession. The romance between them seemed relatively obligatory, as well.

On the good side, I loved the setting of Byzantine Constantinople. Illustrating the scene with rich historical detail is at least one thing that Harper does quite well. I felt that after reading this book, I had learned something about the time period and had more of a feel for it. The whole thing with the palace guards and different races hired or forced to do the job over the years was also quite interesting.

This book is alright. But if you are looking for a thrilling, quickly paced mystery, I would advise you to move on.