I loved The Phoenix and the Mirror, the first book in Avram Davidson’s trilogy about the mage Vergil in ancient Rome, but the two sequels are disappointing. The first sequel, Vergil in Averno, is a travelogue of Vergil’s visit to Averno, a place that ancient Romans thought might be the gate to Hell. (It’s not nearly as interesting as that might suggest, though.) It had little plot, but at least it displayed Avram Davidson’s amusing sense of humor.
This second sequel, The Scarlet Fig, has even less plot. The story starts as Vergil encounters a condemned man who is pardoned by a Vestal Virgin on his way to be executed. Something happens to the Vestal Virgin’s carriage and in his attempt to keep her from falling, Vergil accidentally touches her arm. Vergil’s intentions were honorable, but touching a Vestal Virgin is a crime, so he must flee Rome. The rest of the story follows Vergil around the world as he tries to keep ahead of the men who want to escort him back to Rome. Along the way he visits random real and legendary places (Naples, Corsica, the Island of the Lotus-Eaters) and meets random people and creatures. Vergil often gives us information and backstory about all these random places and people, though it has nothing to do with the plot (because there is no plot). He also recounts many childhood memories that are somewhat interesting but also mostly irrelevant.
But there does seem to be a purpose to The Scarlet Fig. Avram Davidson seemed fascinated by ancient Roman myths, folklore, legendary creatures, symbolism and alchemy, and he weaves these into his random digressions and connects them to real historical details in a way that makes ancient Rome feel like a magical place, a place where basilisks and satyrs are just as real as Augustus Caesar. I loved this about the trilogy, even when I thought the story was dull. I also loved how Vergil was both scientifically minded and open minded — he’s a scientist/magician.
The Scarlet Fig: or, Slowly through a Land of Stone will have limited appeal. There are fewer of the writing quirks I mentioned in my review of Vergil in Averno, but The Scarlet Fig also has less of Davidson’s charming humor. While I admire what Avram Davidson did here — the melding of legendary and historical Rome — I have to admit that I was mostly bored by The Scarlet Fig.
Again Robert Blumenfeld does a nice job with the narration of Audible Studio’s 2013 version of The Scarlet Fig.