The Seven Wonders: A Novel of the Ancient World
By Steven Saylor
Unabridged recording published by Recorded Books
Read by Stephen Plunkett
The Seven Wonders is a prequel story to Mister Saylor’s acclaimed Roma Sub Rosa series. In it we follow the young Gordianus (later known as “The Finder” although at this time it is his father who owns that title) and his teacher, the celebrated poet, Antipater of Sidon.
They pretty much wander about the ancient world, traveling to each of the celebrated Wonders as listed in Antipater of Sidon’s writings, although the earliest lists were by Herodotus and Callimachus of Cyrene; the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Tomb of Mausolus (or the Mausoleum) at Halicarnassus, The Statue of Zeus of Olympia, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Walls of Babylon, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Great Pyramid of Giza. I have learned that the very earliest of lists referenced the Ishtar Gate of Babylon (the reconstruction of which is now on display at the Berlin Museum although there are quite a few replicas, both physical and digital available for the interested.) Of the walls of Babylon, only the Ishatar Gate and some caches of bricks are all that is left of the walls in this story. The Hanging Gardens in the story are also a mere remnant of the tales by the time of Gordianus’ and Antipater’s visit too, but then there are some scholars who believe that the gardens were one of those stories that grew in the telling. Later lists include the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria but while it is not included among the list of wonders in this story, Gordianus does go to Alexandria and, due to upheavals in Italy, lives there for a while, allowing Mister Saylor to include the Pharos as a setting in the story.
Mister Saylor has once again crafted an entertaining story, although it is so episodic that each chapter might have been published as a short story and somehow no matter where Gordianus and Antipater roam, there is a mystery for Gordianus to solve. I felt some of the situations were a bit forced and caught myself why he was doing what he was doing, but this is a young man of eighteen years and more impetuous than the deliberate investigator we meet in Saylor’s earlier books. However, this is still the same stubborn and observant Gordianus readers will remember.
I was disappointed on a couple points. First of all, Mister Saylor, usually so careful in his historic research for these books, repeatedly referred to the Olympic Games as the “Olympiad.” An Olympiad in the ancient world was actually the four year period between the games and not the games themselves. So you might well say, “These are the games of the Eighty-ninth Olympiad,” but would not call them the “Eighty-ninth Olympiad,” although some histories were written using the Olympiads to reckon time in the same way we use years or the republican Romans used consular terms of office. The misuse of the term to refer to the games themselves is a modern error and even the International Olympic Committee has stopped using it that way. Certainly Gordianus would never have called the games an Olympiad.
My second disappointment was more general in nature. The stories are so short and barely connected that they are relatively shallow when compared to the novel-length mysteries of the Roma Sub Rosa series. That is a short-coming of the story length, I think. In such a short incident Gordianus tends to see right to the heart of the matter and does whatever it is he does in that case and resolves the conflict. On the other hand in such short pieces there really is not much time for development.
The closest we have to a running plot line begins in Olympia and then is not heard of again until after they reach Alexandria. If that was meant to be a long-term mystery that holds the book together, however, it does not entirely succeed as there really have been no hints that there was anything going on, no suspicions on Gordianus’ part that he somehow failed to resolve correctly in his mind. It’s just “Hey remember the guy who got away back around the middle of the book? Guess what? He’s back now…” I suppose the ending is meant as a surprising twist, but I think seasoned mystery readers, and students of ancient history alike will not be too surprised.
Stephen Plunkett does an okay job of reading the story, but his use of Americanized pronunciations of Latin and Greek names and places is frequently annoying. I will not say his pronunciations are wrong, but they are certainly not how I learned them in Latin class.
Other than that, however, his reading is fairly enjoyable. The “funny voices” are kept to a minimum and used only with good cause, such as for a many who has gone without food or water for two days. So once one gets past the jarring pronunciations. So with the exception of Gordianus’ name which sounds like an unfortunately diseased body part when Mister Plunkett says it, most of those errors are near the start of the book and mostly forgotten by the end.
So, what we have here is a book that reads like it was “phoned in.” Fans of Steven Saylor will probably like it and he spends a considerably time describing the seven wonders in very plausible detail, but each chapter uses the same story template – see a wonder, encounter and solve a mystery and have sex. I do not mean to imply that it was terribly overt and crude, it was not, but it also held no real value to the story unless you want to count the sappy ending when he first lays eye on his future wife in a slave auction in which case I suppose his, by then, wide sexual experience might have been culminated? I do not know. Actually I sort of liked the sappy ending as Gordianus remarked, “Now I know the name of the Eighth Wonder.”
The reading had flaws be could have been much worse, so call it an average reading and a lackluster story.