Recent Reading: One Night in Boukos by AJ Demas

Okay, this one is a novella – a long novella, a short novel. About 230 pages, it says on Amazon. I got the Kindle version. It’s long enough that the $3.99 price seems quite reasonable.

Also: it’s really good. It’s a historical – okay, wait, not exactly. Let me rephrase that. It reads like a historical. There’s no magic. The world is secondary, but very familiar. We have here a classical setting with an Athenian-like city-state, a Sparta-like city-state, a Persia-like country, and various others named but not described in detail, which are arranged around, as far as we can tell, a Mediterranean-like sea. Thus, a historical, basically, but withoutthe need to stick to historical customs or attitudes too closely.

The two pov protagonists are from Persia. I mean Zash. They are members of the ambassador’s party, in Athens – that is, Boukos – to arrange a trade alliance. We have Marzana, who’s the captain of the ambassador’s guard, and Bedar, who’s the ambassador’s eunuch secretary. Here’s the setup: The ambassador went out to a dinner party last night and doesn’t arrive back at the embassy. Only Marzana and Bedar actually know this. In order to prevent certain disaster, they’ve told the ambassador’s household he spent the night in the city, while they’re telling everyone else he’s fine, just not seeing anyone because, uh, reasons. They have to find him before everything falls apart . . . and, go!

“One Night in Boukos” is such an interesting contrast to Point of Hopes, because almost all the action takes place between one dawn and the next. There’s the same kind of emphasis on delightful worldbuilding details, but in this case combined with a fast pace. Marzana and Bedar split up, each of them investigating one possible trail left by the ambassador. They have very different skills and personalities, but both speak the language. The author does a good job having the Persians speak much more formally, the Athenians much more colloquially – possibly just a little too colloquially at times. Though I interpreted the occasional use of contemporary American slang as the author indicating the use of contemporary Boukosian slang.

Anyway, neither Marzana nor Bedar is all that familiar with the city or the customs. Adding to the confusion and the culture shock, this particular day happens to be an important festival to the patron god of the city, who is a god of fertility. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say, of sex. A certain amount of hilarity ensues. I will say, Bedar manages with more aplomb, but Marzana does all right too.

During the course of the day and night, two relationships unfold. I knew this was supposed to happen given the back cover copy, but it took a while to get there, relative to the length of the story. Both Marzana and Bedar gradually lose interest in locating the ambassador as the hints pile up that he is a totally worthless jackass. That reduces tension for the reader, who doesn’t care much whether something bad has already happened to him or whether the two of them are too late to save him from whatever fate he might have suffered. The tension instead is focused on the protagonists, in finding out how they solve their problems and whether they come out all right. The reader doesn’t have to be very astute to suspect they’ll both be fine; the tone of the story makes that pretty clear. This is all about the process of getting to the happy ending, without a lot of worry about whether the ending will be happy when you get there. In that way, “One Night in Boukos” is again similar to Point of Hopes. Both are good choices if you want a less-tense reading experience.

Anyway, Marzana meets a charming widow and Bedar meets a young man with an interesting past and an unenviable present. Spoiler: things work out. Even though all the action takes place in less than two full days and neither protagonist meets his specific important secondary lead until halfway through the story, the pacing of those relationships doesn’t feel frenetic. That’s quite a trick, but the author does take the time to make sure both protagonists and both important secondary characters are fully realized. Then as we get toward the end, the plot comes together neatly, click click click as elements fall into place. It’s an elegant story as well as charming. Humorous, but not quite tongue-in-cheek. Nicely satisfying ending. The first thing I did after finishing this story was pick up another of the author’s novellas.

Who would like this novella:

If you like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric novellas, and who doesn’t, there’s a good chance you’d like “One Night in Boukos.” If in addition to Penric you also like Gillian Bradshaw’s historicals, then it’s highly likely you’ll appreciate this novella, which has such a strong classical feel plus romance, a lot like most of her novels. Definitely recommended, and thanks to Mary Beth, who pointed me toward it on Twitter at the exact time I was in the mood for a story like this.

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