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October 25, 2006

A few years back, Robert Harris, the author of Fatherland and Enigma, turned his attention to the ancient world with Pompeii (guess what it is about…).  Being the sucker for historical fiction that I am, I snagged a copy and tore into it.

Now…I won’t say that Pompeii was bad…indeed, when dealing with the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius it was in fact quite good.  But the excuse of a story that Harris tacked on…execrable.

It was in light of this experience that I regarded Harris’ new book, Imperium, with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, he can be a brilliant writer, and the career of Cicero is certainly fertile ground from which to draw a story.  On the other hand…I couldn’t quite bring myself to overlook the Dan Brown-esque story that dragged Pompeii down.

I probably would’ve avoided it altogether had my iPod adapter not gone on the fritz only a few days before I was supposed to be driving to Dallas.  Dreading the thought of picking through radio stations for the drive there and back, I headed to Barnes & Noble to grab an audiobook.  And, lo and behold, there sat Imperium.  Figuring it looked more appealing than the other new arrivals, I decided to take the risk.  And am I glad I did.

Harris may have botched the story in Pompeii, but he nails it in Imperium, which covers Cicero’s career up through his election to consul in 63 B.C., as narrated by his secretary, Tiro.  The story is sharp, witty, engrossing, and remarkably accurate to the real events.  It is also – at least to my mind – quite acccessible.  But then again, I always tend to overestimate the average reader’s ability to juggle more than three names ending in "-us".

If you are looking for a grand epic of war and violence, however, I would advise you to look elsewhere.  Cicero was not one for conflict and conquest, and most of the novel’s action takes place in the Forum, the Senate, and the various houses of leading citizens.  Nevertheless, it is filled with plenty of legal and political drama and adventurism the likes of which would make John Grisham curl up in a ball and whimper.

All in all, I was very pleased, and when the inevitable sequel comes out in a few years, I will definitely be buying it.

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