Urban fantasy reminds us that reality and myth are really two parts of the same VELCRO® Brand hook and loop fastener (yes, Velcro, I read the trademark guidelines…). As the Jungians constantly remind us, we can barely even perceive the world without snagging the loops of our culturally-inherited vocabulary of symbols and archetypes on its tangible, verifiable hooks. Until they’re hooked, those loops are an undifferentiated tangle; any loop will do for any hook. Yet a series of contiguous loops joined to a contiguous series of hooks yields a worldview whose physical—what is— and affective—how we should feel and what we should do about what is— components hold together. A good story, in other words.
The literarily pretentious are perfectly willing to link the real with the mythical abstractly, but are pretty shy about actually making the join. More worldy writers tend, on the other hand, to play it safe and plot completely in the concrete world, but merrily use out-and-out fantasy whenever they get stuck (or wherever they think it will stick). My rather unforgiving verdict is that the former cowardly refuses literature’s standing challenge to reach beyond what we know now and mediate between past, present, and future systems of knowledge, and that the latter, having nothing to say but ‘like me; I’m mysterious!’, end up reading like Wikipedia articles, but ones whose smattering of explanatory hyperlinks you don’t have the luxury of ignoring.
In ‘The Man from Rome’, Quarles takes a city full of hooks and overlays a coherent web of classical and adapted mythology that fits absolutely, hook-for-loop. His plot is as compelling and fast-paced as any thriller’s, with plenty of action sequences that I would love to see filmed. The mythological parts of the story, because they’re integrated into the well-observed reality of the city’s past and present, aren’t just garnish, but act as often and as convincingly on characters as physical and psychological constraints. This is crucial for any story dealing with the archetypal interactions that gods incarnate and dramatise; for any story that aspires to reach for anything transcendent, rather than merely relating a series of events.
I particularly admired the care given to what, in a film, one would call ‘storyboarding’. The book is highly episodic, and Quarles is a master not only at rationing revelations about his world and characters to balance intrigue with comprehensibility, but also at contrasting more metaphysical scenes dealing with the eternal conflict of archetypal opposites with the everyday, mortal struggles and tragedies they symbolise. He has that restraint so rare in modern fantasy: the willingness to know more about his world than he tells. The result is a book blessedly free from the ‘info-dump’, while the submerged 80% of the iceberg gives the 20% above the water a satisfying solidity.
The eponymous Man from Rome is a particularly fascinating figure, bringing a moral ambiguity that breathes new life into the ‘eternal guardian’ archetype. The same nuanced realism is evident in his depictions of Artemis and Apollo, which stays much truer to the classical conception of flawed divinities than the Judeo-Christian proposition that omnipotence and benevolence can co-exist, as many of the most recent superhero canons also do: Watchmen, The Boys, and much of even the Disney-filtered Marvel franchise. Meanwhile, the mortal characters’ mixture of vulnerability and nobility offers a more hopeful outlook for mankind than do most works taking a similarly cynical view of the divine.
All in all, I’d say ‘The Man from Rome’ is a great book for anyone who doesn’t limit their reading by genre. There are elements here of fantasy, contemporary thriller, action thriller, and even mystery/police procedural. It offers the chance to put yourself in the hands of a confident, competent storyteller working in his element, and be swept along in a novel that can stand up to casual analysis as an entertaining adventure as well as to more serious consideration as a piece of modern mythology in its own right.
The best part is, if you enjoy it, there’s going to be a sequel…
For sale now on Audible (Link).
If you listen to it, an honest review on that platform keeps the title visible,
and would be much appreciated.
 Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum” demonstrates this perfectly.
 Magic realism excepted.