Friday, February 3, 2012

"Danger in the Wind"

Jane Finnis's Aurelia Marcella novels tell of life and death in first-century Roman Britain, the turbulent province of Britannia, on the very edge of the Roman Empire. The series includes Get Out or Die, A Bitter Chill, and Buried Too Deep.

Finnis applied the Page 69 Test to Danger in the Wind, the fourth novel in the series, and reported the following:
Page 69 illustrates something important about this book. It doesn't contain any crime-solving, or even any crime - though we've already had several murders, achieved and attempted, and more violence will follow. But it's a prime example of the balancing act you perform when writing a novel that's part of a series.

You want to include familiar people from previous books; that's like renewing old friendships, for both writer and reader. Yet it's essential to introduce new characters too, to keep the stories fresh. On Page 69 two of the new ones are emerging, starting small, but they'll grow in importance as the story progresses.

The setting, as before, is the ancient Roman province of Britannia. The story's told by Aurelia Marcella, who runs a successful inn on the road to York. As the book opens, she receives a letter from a cousin living at a fort north of York, ostensibly inviting her to a birthday party but including a veiled, urgent plea for help. She relishes the idea of a holiday, even a slightly risky one, but before she's had time to write her acceptance, one of the inn's overnight guests is found murdered, and carrying a message indicating danger at the same place and time as Cousin Jovina's party. Aurelia's twin brother Lucius, an investigator for the provincial Governor and another familiar character, happens to be visiting Aurelia, but a rift is developing in their usually close relationship. He orders her to refuse the party invitation because of the potential danger. And he has brought home the girl he plans to marry: Vitellia, young, beautiful, and empty-headed. Aurelia tries her best, but thinks this is quite the wrong wife for her brother. When Lucius is called away on an urgent assignment he leaves Vitellia behind asking Aurelia to look after her, and assuming this makes it impossible for her to go to the party anyway. But Aurelia decides she'll ignore his orders and go whatever the risks, and she'll have to take Vitellia along too.

On Page 69 Vitellia is befriended by Baca, a young servant-girl at the inn. Both will have important roles to play later, but now, when Lucius has just ridden away, all Vitellia wants is a shoulder to cry on…as Aurelia accidentally overhears.
“I don't know what to do with myself. I can't think of anything but him. I feel so alone here. Everyone's trying to be kind, but you're all so busy, nobody has time for me really. I miss Sosia, my maid. Lucius said there was no need for me to bring her up here because he'd be with me all the time, she'd just be sitting about with nothing to do. And now he's gone away.”

“Perhaps I could be your maid,” Baca suggested, “just while you're here. I could look after you, do your hair and that. You've got lovely hair. And I could do your sewing. I noticed the blue tunic you had on yesterday has a little bit of a tear in the hem. I can fix that for you if you like.”

“Oh, thank you, Baca. But you've got your own work to do.”

“I'm in the kitchen mostly. I'd much rather be looking after you.” I heard her give a little giggle. “Believe me, sewing ladies' clothes is a lot nicer than chopping onions and pounding herbs. And maybe I could even come with you when you all go on your little holiday.”

“Holiday? I don't know anything about a holiday.”

Curse the girl, I thought, I was hoping to break that bit of news to Vitellia myself. Well, I suppose she had to find out sooner or later.

“Perhaps I've got it wrong then,” Baca was saying. “Maybe it's just the mistress who's going. So how about if I look after you while you're at the Oak Tree? Of course if it doesn't suit you…”

“Oh, but it does, Baca. Only…would Aurelia let you, do you think?”

“I'm sure she would. Ask her.”

“I don't like to. To tell the truth she frightens me. I don't think she likes me, and with Lucius not here to stand up for me…”

“Of course she does. And she likes that brother of hers too, she'd do anything for him. Don't you fret. She can be a bit sharp sometimes, but she's all right, is the Mistress. Her bark's much worse than her bite.”
And how did Aurelia react to that remark? Turn to Page 70…
Learn more about the book and author at the official Jane Finnis website.

The Page 69 Test: Buried Too Deep.

--Marshal Zeringue