Rubies of the Viper by Martha Marks

‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’

This novel opens on the Ides of May in 53 AD, with the murder of Gaius Terentius Varro in Rome. He was the master of one of Rome’s great fortunes, and his estate is inherited by his nineteen-year-old half-sister, Theodosia Varro. Theodosia moves from Rome to the family ancestral villa, the Villa Varroniana on the coast north of Rome. Here, in the library her father had built some eighteen years earlier, she encounters Alexander, the Greek slave who is the steward.

Theodosia is now a very wealthy woman. A very wealthy unmarried woman. She is aware that while she has inherited the estate, she will need to prove that she can manage it. Theodosia is acutely aware that her brother’s murder has not been solved: is she also at risk?

‘I’ve got to find out who did kill Gaius, if only to protect myself.’

In the first of a planned trilogy, Ms Marks introduces several memorable (fictional) characters as well as involving a number of historical figures. The intrigue of imperial Rome, the class consciousness of the patricians and the role of slaves are all part of the setting. Theodosia learns some things quickly but is naïve and impetuous. These attributes will prove dangerous.

This novel contains aspects of both mystery and romance, as well as plenty of action. While Theodosia is an interesting character, I was torn between admiration and despair by some of her actions. Of the other characters, I found Alexander the most intriguing.

While some aspects of the story worked better for me than others, I kept reading keen to see how this instalment would end. And yes, we do learn who killed Gaius Terentius Varro (which will probably not come as a surprise to most readers) but there are plenty of other twists and turns in the tale including a high stakes competition before Nero towards the end.

Did I enjoy the novel? Mostly. I certainly enjoyed it enough to start reading the sequel. I’m really keen to find out how it will all end.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith