A Bitter Chill

by Jane Finnis

Reviewed by Susan Gillmor

A Bitter Chill by Jane Finnis The bitter chill descending on the Oak Tree Inn on the northern frontier of provincial Britannia in 95 A.D. is not entirely due to the frigid December temperatures. Roman-born innkeeper Aurelia Marcella, her sister Albia, and their staff of servants and native Briton slaves are quickly entangled in multi-layered dangers, intrigues, and murder in the second installment of this entertaining historical mystery series by Jane Finnis.

Aurelia’s twin brother, Lucius, is a secret agent for the provincial Governor of Britannia. Word reaches her that he has lost favor with his powerful bosses and that a spy for the Governor may infiltrate her inn to find evidence of Lucius’s transgressions. No sooner has this unsettling news dampened the happy preparations for the upcoming Saturnalia festivities than Senator Gnaeus Plautius and his over-bearing wife, Sempronia, with their multitude of attendants arrive unexpectedly at Aurelia’s door demanding the very best accommodations and service. By the time a local native leader of a gang called the Wolf-Pack tries to strong-arm Aurelia into cooperating in a protection racket, she is almost certain she has been cursed for burning a branch of mistletoe, “the Druids’ revered holy plant” with “those evil glossy leaves and creamy-yellow berries.”

Among Finnis’s many strengths is her ability to weave a complex and compelling story, adding multiple threads to the mix and yet tying together apparently disparate components into a seamless whole. Her thorough grasp of the history of the Roman Empire, its provincial personality, and the native culture of Celtic Britain inform nearly every line of the novel. For example, her descriptions of Saturnalia, “the presents and lots of good food and wine,” with “a whole holly tree” standing “in the middle of the bar-room,” remind us how many of our modern Christmas traditions we owe directly to ancient Rome!

After multiple murders, poisonings, kidnappings, and illegal slave-trading (among other delicious complications), A Bitter Chill winds up with an exciting denouement and a satisfying conclusion. (2005, 341 pp., including “About the History” notes and suggestions for further reading)

More about A Bitter Chill at Powell's Books or Amazon.com

Other novels in the Aurelia Marcella mystery series:

#1: Get Out or Die (2003). Review or More info at Powell's Books

#3: Buried Too Deep (2008). More info

Nonfiction relating to inns and travel in the Roman world:

Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain by H.E.M. Cool (2007). More info

Roads in Roman Britain by Hugh Davies (2002). More info

Travel in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson (1974; updated 1994), includes a chapter on inns. More info


"A Brief History of the British Pub" at RateBeer.com

"Roman Roads" at ThinkQuest.org

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