book reviews

Book Review: Death Ex Machina

Death Ex Machina (The Athenian Mysteries, #5)Death Ex Machina

by Gary Corby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Received for review from Amazon Vine

I discovered Gary Corby’s ancient Greece novels after reading Wilbur Smith’s Desert God about ancient Egypt. It made me hunger for more on the lives of people before technology took over. Corby’s five-installment series, based in the world’s first democracy around 450 B.C., stars Athenian detectives Nicolaos and Diotima,  The ongoing story of their adventures (and misadventures) and daily life is fun and engaging, with authentic detail about a long-gone era. An Afterword section discusses the history highlighted in each book which I read as eagerly as the novel.

Death Ex Machina is the latest of the series. Nicolaos and Diotima investigate a series of mishaps at the Great Dionysia, the largest arts festival on the ancient world and held to honor the god Dionysos. When an actor is murdered, it threatens to close down the festival and embarrass Athens in the eyes of both friends and enemies. ‘Embarrassment’ in those times was conflated with weakness, which was not good in a world populated by neighbors looking for opportunities to destroy neighbors. The two detectives follow clues, unravel mysteries, and avoid near-death experiences–much like would happen in any detective novel–but wrapped in the shroud of a long-ago Hellenic world–which means no forensics or technology, just the investigative tools available over two thousand years ago.

Corby weaves in so much about history, I come away with a much stronger understanding of that era. His supporting characters include Socrates, Aeschylus, and Sophocles–all names I’ve read, but now I get to know them as I would a friend. Every time I look up a piece of history Corby includes, he’s spot on. He brings it to life by making it personal, approachable and relatable. The only device that rattled me–at first–is his characters used current language rather than ancient. I got used to it, accepting it as I would if it were translated from Greek to English. In this case, it was translated from ‘ancient’ to ‘modern’.

Overall, a great find. I love every book in the series and eagerly await the next. Write on, Gary Corby, write on!

If you would like to purchase this book through Amazon, click the link below:

 Death Ex Machina (An Athenian Mystery)

More historic fiction:

Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailor

Horse Soldiers

Tongwan City

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, adjunct professor, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. 

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40 thoughts on “Book Review: Death Ex Machina

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  7. First of all, let me say a big thank you to Jacqui for such a lovely review!

    For the last week I’ve been away in Tasmania, the southernmost part of Australia. In the place where I and my family were staying, among wombats and Tasmanian Devils, the internet is but a distant rumour, which was remarkably refreshing, but it means I haven’t seen these comments until now. Please excuse me for the tardy reply and I’ll see if I can answer a few things…

    Were there detectives in ancient Greece, as per Rod’s question? Yes, but not how you might think. There was no official detective force. There were peacekeepers, called the Scythian Guard, who were more like cops on a beat than detectives.

    If someone was murdered, then it was the legal responsibility of the nearest male relative to track down and prosecute the killer. Which happened on a regular basis. People really did take their responsibilities seriously. They could use any help they liked — hence my hero Nico can get a job — but the nearest male relative was the official prosecutor.

    Anyone could prosecute anyone else if they thought a crime had been committed. This is the rule by which Nico can run his private agent business. There was an official name for someone who acted like this for the public good. The name was…wait for it…sycophant! Obviously the meaning of sycophant has changed a lot in the last 2,500 years! But it comes originally from the classical Greek legal system meaning a private prosecutor. I never use the word sycophant in my books because it would confuse modern readers.

    The number of people who acted as private agents in the modern sense was beyond count. Perhaps the most famous was a rather interesting man named Thessalus, who is recorded as having been both a professional actor, and also a private agent who worked for Alexander the Great. The combination of spying and acting has a venerable history.

    Next question!

    Tech and CSI… it’s not a concept. Classical Greeks had a very high respect for the dead and human dissection was absolute anathema. Nico and the love of his life Diotima must solve their puzzles by interviews and pure logic, in the vein of Agatha Christie. They understand poisons very well, and trauma wounds, because that’s the reality of their times, but medicine is a very young science. Just to put this in perspective, in the third book they meet Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, who at that date is one year old.

    And finally, the setting…

    This is the birth of our civilization. The first book opens when the world’s first democracy is about three days old. (And the guy who created it was assassinated.) These people, 2,500 years ago, had democratic voting, free and fair elections, trial by jury, the first science, the first medicine, invented theater and plays, created sports events like the Olympics, and got heavily into ethics and morality. Pretty much everything that defines us began with them. So ultimately, the books try to be a guided tour of how we ended up the way we are, and have some fun along the way. Though how well that works is up to you to judge.


    • Wonderful answers, Gary. Thanks so much for the clarifications.

      One more thought on your books: They are so vivid, they’ve become part of my knowledge base and I find myself using Ancient Greece norms in my conversations as evidence of my points (education loves the idea of evidence, so this is often on my Ask a Tech Teacher blog).

      I hope you were writing in Tasmania. I’m ready for my next installment!


      • As it happens, I was indeed writing in Tasmania. Am now translating the scribbles on bits of paper into typed words.

        I know what you mean, Jacqui, about classical period norms seeping into your worldview. It happens to me all the time, unsurprisingly I suppose!


  8. I was so intrigued I went to the Amazon link, and note it’s being released in May. What a wonderful way to steep one’s self in that time and place with Socrates et al. Good luck Gary Corby and thanks to Jacqui for the review. Have bookmarked to check it out again.


    • I get preview copies as a Vine Voice for Amazon. Each in the series is a stand-alone with lots of fascinating information about historic Athens and Greece. His writer’s voice is quite reader-friendly.


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