This modern-day fantasy story is about a soldier from ancient Rome who has been given a second chance.
Maternus (mentioned in Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire") has spent the last 1800 years in Hell because his file was lost. When it is retrieved nd processed, he gets a chance to prove that he is not just a killing machine. When he was alive, there were a number of instances where Maternus would kill only those who deserved to die, and spare the innocent. But Mr. Worthy, and angel, and Banewill, a demon, make the stakes very clear to Maternus. If he loses his temper, and lets out his inner warrior, even once, a new, and very permanent, level of Hell will be created just for him. Is Maternus sent back to the days of the Roman Empire to show that his soul has not totally vanished? He is sent to present-day Aurora, Colorado.
Mr. Worthy sets up Maternus (now Matthew August) with an apartment, and a janitor job at the local middle school. Maternus is also given the ability to read, and he is introduced to the local public library, where he spends much of his time. There he meets Stephen and Shen, both residents of a local rooming house. Stephen, who is white, is one of those who is constantly writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper about some Major Crisis (next week it will be some other Major Crisis). Shen, who is black, is very handsome, and attracts the ladies like flies to honey. He is also a poet, performing at local poetry nights, which Maternus attends.
Mr. Worthy and Banewill give Maternus several seemingly impossible tasks to perform. They inlcude bringing some joy and companionship into the lives of Edith Pink, a student at the school where Maternus works, and Margaret Lambkin, a resident at a local nursing home. Both Edith and Margaret are the sort of people for whom the description "mean, rotten and nasty" is much too generous. Through it all in this strange new world, Maternus is comforted by the memory of Maria, a woman he met during his soldier days, and whom he has never forgotten.
This story is surprisingly good. It's got heart, it's got intelligence and it says a few things about present-day America. The reader will not go wrong with this one.