Review: Imperium, by Robert Harris
A very good piece of historical fiction that did everything I want my historical fiction to do - it completely engrossed me into a very different time and place, and also made me want to read more nonfiction about this specific area of history (Mary Beard's SPQR, I'm coming for you).
This is the story of Cicero's rise to power told from the point of view of his slave (and private secretary) Tiro, who apparently invented the shorthand system. This is mentioned several times in the text, so we know it's important. That was the only thing that irritated me about this novel, was just how often we were told Tiro invented shorthand.
I also slightly wish that Robert Harris had made Cicero less of a sympathetic character - I think that would have added a layer of nuance and complexity to the text that was a bit lacking; and I think if Tiro had been able to walk us through his own justification of Cicero's character rather than presenting him as someone worthy of the hero worship he received, I would have found the narrative more compelling. But maybe he does that in the following two novels, as Cicero's accommodations with power and disreputable characters become more morally questionable. I think the book also suffered slightly from being first-person narration that the secondary and tertiary characters felt less developed than the two central personalities.
I also did very much enjoy the little political asides and commentary that feel as true in Ancient Rome as they do today; I'm sure that was Robert Harris's point but you know what they made me laugh and so I enjoyed them.
I liked the way the book was split into the two component parts, which made me feel like each part of the narrative was given its own space and room to develop appropriately. The two individual climaxes felt appropriately separate that way, instead of jammed together into one big mess where we might have missed the individual emotional moments and resolutions; what I liked less is the way Harris handed us the clues and resolutions rather than leading us to them through subtext or references (but maybe I say that because I was reading this book at the same time as I was finishing a Dorothy Dunnett, and the comparison just feels inherently unfair).
And the sense of atmosphere, setting and place is excellently rendered - I felt transported, but also that the story and the dialogue was compelling enough that the setting only served to elevate the narrative, rather than draw my attention away from it. That is a balance that is very difficult to get right in historical fiction, and so I give Harris massive props for so successfully pulling it off.
Also, as my friend who recommended it to me pointed out, the history is accurate. The anachronisms of political commentary suit rather than detract from the story, and nothing stuck out enough to make me angry in the way it so often does in Ancient History historical fiction (looking at you, The Wolf Den). Basically I highly recommend this novel if you want something gripping and compelling set in Ancient Rome, that is easy and fun to read while still being historically accurate and fairly decent literary quality.
I wrote this review in its entirety while being on hold with Royal Mail, so I really fell the book should be given even more props for not bearing the brunt of my annoyance as well.