2021’s Saffron Alley is the second novel in A. J. Demas’ Sword Dance secondary universe series.
Having survived an incompetent foray into terrorism mounted by students of Eurydemos, ex-soldier Damiskos returned, at least for the moment, to bureaucratic duties in the city-state of Pheme. His new lover Varazda returned to his household in Boukos. Now it is time for what may be Damiskos’ most dangerous mission ever: venturing to Boukos to meet Varazda’s family.
Damiskos wasn’t sure how he will be received. Varazda hasn’t been replying to letters. He is relieved to find that Varazda still loves him; Varazda is just bad at replying to letters. However, several members of Varazda’s found family make their disapproval clear. Yazata doubts Damiskos’s good intentions. Tash/Ariston feels that an affair between soldier and eunuch is hideously unfashionable. Damiskos and Varazda are unsettled, but still determined to stay together and then …
Complications ensue when Tash/Ariston suddenly confesses to murder. That’s hard to believe; murder is out of character for such a nice guy. It’s even harder to believe when the supposed murder victim, artist Themistokles, turns out to be alive and well.
Why would someone confess to a murder that they not only did not commit but which never occurred in the first place? It’s all a zany misunderstanding. Tash/Ariston overheard a conversation between a dominatrix (with whom he’s in love) and a client (someone whose face Tash/Ariston did not see). Tash/Ariston nobly seeks to shield his beloved and take the blame for a supposed murder.
But this does not rule out the possibility that someone has been murdered. Boukos is a hotbed of nasty politics. Then there’s the Make Pheme Great Again agitation. It would be unsurprising if a corpse were to turn up. As it happens, one does.
What is surprising is that Varazda is framed for the killing.
Still not one hundred percent sure if this is fantasy or not. If there’s magic, it’s subtle and plays no important part in the plot. Instead this novel focuses on one aspect of the real-history Greek Classical world (which inspires the setting of this novel). That world was rather diverse. Rather than a heterogenous world of immiscible nations in which contact with foreigners is comprised primarily of fending off invading armies of others , even subsidiary cities like Boukos recall that well-known Babylonian ditty, The Cursing of Agade:
Like a young man building a house for the first time, like a girl establishing a woman’s domain, holy Inana did not sleep as she ensured that the warehouses would be provisioned; that dwellings would be founded in the city; that its people would eat splendid food; that its people would drink splendid beverages; that those bathed for holidays would rejoice in the courtyards; that the people would throng the places of celebration; that acquaintances would dine together; that foreigners would cruise about like unusual birds in the sky.
In the case of Boukos, there is a significant Zashian population. Zash is a large nation close enough for routine trade and diplomatic contact, but different enough to seem very strange to many in the Phemian circle of influence. Consequently, there’s the usual question of to what degree the Zashians should adopt Phemian ways and to what degree they should stick to their traditions. Hands up, everyone who is surprised that there is not a consensus on this issue. Surprised that some like Task/Ariston choose the first, others like Varazda choose the second? And that there are hard feelings over all this? That this is the same scenario as seen in any non-hermit nation?
As with the first volume, there is a considerable Bujoldian element, as characters try to juggle complications both exasperating and potentially lethal, while at the same time dealing with all that relationship stuff. Not to mention that there are long-distance relationships, which turn out to be even harder to maintain when one replaces the internet with physical documents transported via sailing ships.
It’s an entertaining series and if there is a third volume, I will pick it up.
1: Tash being the Zash name by which they were known and Ariston the Pseuchaian name by which they would now like to be known.