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This review is for the book "Lustrum" by Robert Harris. The book is the sequel to Imperium, but can be read separately, and is the second in the series of three titles, the third of which is expected to be published in late 2010.
Robert Harris is an author specialising in political and historical fiction, and this book is no different, merging the two concepts together. The book is set in Roman times, around the 63 BC period. The book focuses on the character of Cicero, who is the Consul of Rome. He obtained this position in the previous book in the series, and this book starts off from his taking over office.
In terms of prices, there are a range of options for anyone wanting to purchase this book. The hardback book was published in 2009 and retailed at 18.99 pounds. However this book is available new for 9.64 pounds on Amazon at the time of writing, and if you are happy with a second hand copy, can be purchased for around eight pounds including postage from sites such as eBay and Amazon.
I found the book to be fast flowing and well written. I've noticed that some people have been able to make slight complaint about the historical accuracy of the title, but I found it to be well researched and wouldn't have noticed any differences (not that I'm an expert in Roman history!). The book is absorbing and interesting, and is readable on its own without reading the prequel to the title.
The book is written from the perspective of Cicero's secretary, effectively a slave, Tiro. This is a real character who really existed and who did actually write a biography of Cicero. I liked the writing of events from Tiro's point of view, it made it easier to watch the politics in the book develop, and watch as Cicero was about to handle the various decisions and challenges which he faced.
I don't think it stretches reality too much to suggest that the book was partly written to comment on modern day political situations. Whatever period of history you read about, there are surprising comparisons with the reality of political life, and this book is no different, and indeed, the parallels are often not that subtle, especially with respect to the expenses issue which is raised in the book. It also looks how different figures believe they should be treated and respected by the "average" person.
Recently published, in early 2010, is the large paperback version of the book. This costs 12.99 pounds, but is available new for £6.38 from Amazon at the time of writing. If you can wait until July 2010 (or are reading this afterwards!) then you can buy the standard sized paperback version, which will retail at 7.99 pounds, but is available on pre-order from Amazon for 5.99 pounds.
I haven't yet read the first book in the series, Imperium, but will do so now, and look forward to the third in the series. As the book has just been released, the book can't be obtained for the usual cheap prices that second hand books often go for on eBay and Amazon, but in my mind, if you like books which are based in politics and history, give this one a try!
I have always disliked Roman history. Get past the usual stuff that appeals to young boys (gladiatorial battles, people being eaten by wild animals in the Coliseum) and it all seemed pretty boring. The endless political intrigues by people with strange names, the complex structure of the political system and the constantly changing leaders always seemed like far too much effort to bother with.
Until, that is, Robert Harris came along. His first effort at Roman history (Pompeii) only confirmed my opinion with a somewhat pedestrian look at imagined events behind the volcanic eruption. His second, (Imperium) gripped me from the start. Examining the life of public figure Cicero, it contained all those political intrigues I'd always hated, but brought them to life in a way no-one had ever done before.
Lustrum is, effectively, a sequel. Taking up Cicero's life immediately after the events of Imperium, it carries on in much the same vein and proves to be just as readable and enjoyable as its predecessor. Harris weaves a tale of political intrigue which cuts through the complexities of Roman politics and delivers a compelling story of intrigue, betrayal and power struggles.
Harris' strength is that he never dumbs down the labyrinthine structure of the Roman political system or the intensely aggressive lust for power which characterised so many of the Roman Senate. Yet, at the same time, he explains these complexities in a very understandable, readable way. It's always clear how the various institutions fit together and how individuals exploit them for their own advantage. Knowledge of the system is woven naturally into the story and forms a vital part of it, but it is never included for its own sake; to show off how much the author knows. If you really get stuck, there is a glossary explaining some of the key concepts and a list of the key characters to remind you who everyone is. Such is the clarity of Harris' writing that I never once found the need to refer to either.
Where Harris also succeeds is in interweaving real, historical events with fictional constructions. I have no idea how much of Lustrum really happened and how much is the author filling in the blanks. The key thing is that everything is plausible. Historically documented events happen when they should and don't seem out of place with the fictional ones. This interweaving of fact and fiction is something which, done badly, can destroy a book; done well, it makes it for a thrilling read and stunning atmosphere.
Harris doesn't make the mistake of describing Rome in intricate detail, giving out information as it becomes relevant to the story. Description is never given just for the sake of it, but rather because it will enhance our understanding of what is happening at that point. This allows Harris to bring to life the sights, smells and sounds of Rome without overburdening the reader with unnecessary detail.
As in Imperium, we see all the events through the eyes of Tiro, Cicero's private secretary. Tiro makes a very entertaining narrator. Brought back to life by Harris, you feel you get a genuine glimpse into what his life was like. Tiro comes across as a real person (which, of course, he was) and displays the same complex emotions towards his contemporaries as we do with ours. Tiro even has a pleasingly understated sense of humour -some of his caustic observations breaking up the otherwise serious tone. Thanks to Tiro, we feel as though we are getting a first hand account, not a third party story. This really brings to life all the people, places and events, making them feel immediate and real.
Anyone who has read Imperium (and you would be strongly advised to do so first) will recognise many of the characters. The complex familial connections and shaky alliances will be familiar, and this means that Harris can concentrate on character development.
It's important that these characters are carefully nuanced. None of them are "good" or "bad"; they simply follow their own agendas and ambitions. Even Cicero, the supposed "hero" is flawed, making mistakes due to vanity or misjudgement, some of which have very far-reaching consequences. Modern society may have a completely different outlook from ancient Rome, but thanks to this strong characterisation, you recognise the same basic conflicts and contradictions.
Harris also successfully builds the plot on a personal level. Whilst everything is viewed through the eyes of Tiro and his master's political ambition, Cicero's personal rivalries reflect the wider battle for control of the future governance of the Roman Republic. In this way, Harris can address some very big, complex themes but always ensure they remain understandable to us on a more personal level.
You do really need to have read Imperium to get the full benefit of this one. Strictly speaking, you could read it as a stand-alone title, but since it builds on the earlier account, you would be well-advised to start with Cicero's first adventure.
Even though Harris brings everything to life, some may still baulk at the mass of political figures and institutions you need to get your head around. Since the focus is very much on political life, there is very little in the way of real "action" such as battles. Much of the book is set in the Roman Senate and concerns political machinations, electoral manoeuvrings and the building of political power bases and some will find this deathly dull. As a rule of thumb, if you read and enjoyed Imperium, Lustrum is even better; if you hated it, steer clear, as this is more of the same.
Acting as a sequel to Imperium, Lustrum improves and builds on what has gone before. The end result is a compelling picture of Roman political life, which seamless weaves fact and fiction into a gripping read.
© Copyright SWSt 2010