Although there’s no denying that every type of fiction has its difficulties, there are times when I’m convinced that no genre is more difficult than historical fiction. It’s not just because the genre demands more research, although that’s part of it; it’s more that great historical fiction has to balance the research and history with the telling of a story – no easy task. Too many historical novels miss the perfect balance, either losing their way in historical minutiae or getting so wrapped up in their story that the historical setting becomes an irrelevance.
Such isn’t the case with a Robert Harris’s Imperium, a riveting piece of historical fiction that follows famed Roman citizen Cicero as he raises himself from “nothing” (at least, the equivalent for a Roman citizen) to prominence and power. The first volume in a trilogy of books about Cicero, Imperium opens with Cicero studying rhetoric to improve himself, and follows him through his election for the praetorship. Along the way, we find ourselves immersed in political machinations, corruption trials, family drama, and more, watching as Cicero uses his greatest gift – his words and voice – to make a name for himself.
It’s undeniably clear that Harris has done his research here. Even if his reputation didn’t precede him (with books like Fatherland and Enigma, among others), every page of Imperium feels like you’re reading something produced by someone who has lived and breathed this world. The book’s conceit – that it’s the memoirs of Cicero as recounted by his personal secretary Tiro – works beautifully, allowing Harris a unique voice that can both participate in the narrative and comment on it. But more than that, by making the author a contemporary of Cicero, Harris doesn’t allow himself the easy out of being able to launch into long exposition sections explaining how the Roman government works, the rules of the time, and so forth. Instead, he’s writing in the assumption that the audience knows as much as he does, and the result is that you learn an immense amount without ever feeling lectured or taught. The downside, though, is that there are times when you can’t help but wish that Harris had included a glossary, a chart, or some sort of appendices to help keep all of it straight; while I never felt lost plot-wise, there were definitely points where I would not have minded a little bit of extra context that I don’t necessarily have.
Because, make no mistake: this is a book that knows where its story is headed. Tiro isn’t writing his story as it happens, but after the fact – and as soon as we first glimpse the charismatic, powerful Julius Caesar, the book takes on the heavy weight of dramatic irony. But Tiro’s voice keeps it from being cutesy, and in fact, only makes many of the political machinations more ominous, as we see them slowly paving the way for Caesar’s ascent to power – as well as the aftermath, which would destroy democracy in Rome forever.
For all of that, though, Imperium often works best as a legal thriller, with Cicero’s crowning moments coming so often in the form of his performances in trials, governmental procedures, and similar events. More than anything else, Harris’s novel brings this fascinating man to life in all of his greatness and flaws, letting you see how he became such an iconic and important figure at a moment in history that had no shortage of them, and how he both succeeded and isolated himself at the same time. It’s informative, richly detailed, and incredibly knowledgeable, and yet it flows like the best novels, keeping you hooked on every development. And in maybe the surest sign of my feelings about it, I’ve already ordered the second book, and can’t wait to start it soon.