So…Isis3 publishes in 12 days, as you could hardly have missed if you follow this blog. On November 3rd at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale I’ll be signing the hardcover, where people will ask me questions about the book, like where the idea for it came from (well, I’m sorry, but you do always ask that).
What you don’t know is that I finished this book almost a year ago, and it’s so far in the rearview that it takes concentrated effort for me to remember the details of its conception. The broad outline, yes, the surprise character at the end, that great frontier town…but mostly I’m thinking about the next book, Isis4. (Also Isis5, Isis6, and Isis7, but I digress.)
I was looking up a recipe for roast chicken with garlic and honey when an Internet rabbit hole opened up in front of me and down I went, surfacing many clicks later on a BBC story about silphium.
Silphium is or was an herb, an aromatic like garlic, that back in the day grew in what is now eastern Libya. Every part of the plant, root, sap, stalk, leaf, and flower was used in cooking for a condiment, the main course, or a snack; in pharmacology for an aphrodisiac, birth control, or an anti-inflammatory; and for perfume. It was so necessary and valuable to the life of the classical world that they actually put it on coins, which is the only reason we know what it looks like.
Silphium started dying out as soon as the Romans took over and had disappeared by the time of Christ. No one knows why, although its hard not to look at the arrival of the rapacious Romans as cause and effect. But let’s be fair. Silphium was so popular around the Mediterranean at that time that it could have been overharvested by anyone who wanted to make a denarius. Or maybe it developed a type of ergot or Dutch elm disease, nature deciding to take out one of its own. Or maybe foraging animals, who according to Theophrastus liked it every bit as much as humans did, chewed it all right down to the ground, and lacking leaves to make chlorophyll, it gave up and went the way of all herbs.
So. Here we have an herb essential to cooks and doctors and estheticians, already literally worth its weight in gold, which as it became more and more rare would only increase in value. As the astute reader will have already recalled, Tetisheri’s day job is as a merchant trader, whose cargoes certainly included herbs and spices. Silphium is dying out in her lifetime, which is going to make her and Uncle Neb’s customers a little irritable. Maybe time for a trip to Cyrene to see if they can find some silphium and make those customers happy once again. Of course, you know Cleopatra, that living matryoshka doll, will have some ideas of her own about what else might be accomplished on such a voyage.
And then Isis5, where our hero travels even farther west, to meet and greet with King Bocchus of Mauretania, who is feeling a little antsy since Caesar and his troops just landed in Numidia to deal with the Pompeians, who have allied themselves with Bocchus’ sworn enemy King Juba I…
But first, Isis3. Thirteen days and counting.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.