I’m an extremely picky reader. I’m slow to take a risk on a book and I don’t hesitate to pitch it if I find I’m not enjoying it. Too much darkness, violence, or explicit erotica, weak writing, unlikeable characters, inconsistent plot, bad science or lazy research, or putting too much strain on my suspenders of disbelief: all will cause me to toss a book in the discard bin. I don’t want to be “improved” by a book if it needs to make me feel miserable in the process. I don’t mind being challenged, but it needs to be like climbing a mountain: exhilarating, full of delightful surprises, moments of doubt and indecision that are surmounted, with logical progression and triumph in the end. I also like to be entertained, but I don’t want my intellect insulted in the process.
So it took me a few times of hearing Roberta Rogow reading aloud from her Manatas series before I finally decided to give it a try. The excerpts I’d heard were intriguing, with an appealing humor. It’s alternative history, taking place in what we know today as Manhattan, but in the late fifteenth century. The island colony of Manatas is a diverse community of natives, Europeans, and Africans, all overseen by the Sultan Petrus. Locals (Native Americans), Yehudit (Jews), Kristos (Christians, including denominations of “Erse Rite” and “Roumi Rite”) and followers of Islim (Islam) all coexist more or less peacefully. Halvar Danske, around whom this saga revolves, places his faith equally in Mother Mara and the Redeemer, and Thor. The primary business of Manatas is the Feria, a raucous gathering of traders from all over. Halvar, the hireling of Al-Andalusian Calif Don Filipe, has come to make sure the proper taxes are being collected for his master.
His mission also includes tracking down one Leon di Vicenza, a brilliant painter, engineer, and notorious maker of mischief. But his job is complicated when he discovers Leon’s body, the apparent victim of a brutal murder. Now the mystery begins, as Halvar gets sucked into one adventure after another, ruining one set of clothes after another, in the course of doggedly ferreting out the truth.
The author sets a brisk pace, keeping the action going, spicing it with humor and surprises. She tweaks the names of people, places and things in a very interesting and believable way; part of the fun for me was guessing what she was referring to. Some are easy, such as Kibbick for Quebec, or fratery for monastery, but some are cleverly obscure, like nguba for peanut. It is an actual word derived from Bantu, and from which the word “goober” evolved. There is a glossary at the end of books two and three which help with translation, but I needed to refer to them very rarely. It is pretty easy to deduce the meanings from context and skilled extrapolation.
It is not so easy to deduce the solution to the complicated series of interwoven mysteries that multiply with each addition to the saga. Halvar, using good wits, keen observation and the simple technology of the time, manages to solve one problem only to find yet another corpse and get drawn into another, all the while trying to avoid becoming a corpse himself. This very likable hero must negotiate tricky politics, romantic entanglements, and local wildlife (the latter not terribly successfully) in his quest to fulfill his mission for the Calif.
Book One, Murders in Manatas, has Halvar arriving in Manatas on his mission and introduces the reader to this alternative world. Book Two, Mayhem in Manatas, continues the saga, with new intrigues and complications. The latest, Book Three, is Mischief in Manatas, which more or less ties up the loose ends, but still leaves room for possible sequels. One can hope. All are available through Zumaya Publications, as well as through Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Online, NOOK, Kobo, and all the other usual suspects.
Roberta Rogow has written several mystery novels based on an imaginary collaboration between Arthur Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll. She also combines her clever humor with musical talent as a filksinger, and appears at science fiction conventions, mostly in the Northeast United States. (She will be at 9Pi-Con, July 31 to August 2.) Roberta was inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame on April 20, 2013.
Her Manatas series is a fun read, well-researched, with a mystery and characters that hold the interest and keep the reader turning pages. Here’s to Halvar, may he someday live down his famed encounter with the sekonk.