5 days ago
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Historical Fiction At Its Best
Robert Harris needs to write more novels. The former journalist and BBC reporter has but seven fiction titles to his credit. Considering how well-researched (at least they seem so to me) and how well-written they are, though, maybe that does constitute a lot of books.
But still, I'm greedy and want to read more of his stuff.
I recently read Conspirata, known everywhere outside of the United States as Lustrum, because apparently publishers think we Yanks are too dumb to be interested in a book named after an obscure Roman concept of time. Lustrum - ahem, Conspirata - is the second in a planned trilogy about none other than the greatest orator of all time, Marcus Tullius Cicero. This book, Conspirata, chronicles his year as consul and the following four turbulent years of Cicero's life, while the preceding volume, Imperium, gives a rollicking account of his rise to power. I can only assume the final book will be about Cicero's exile, few remaining years, and (SPOILER ALERT) execution.
Imperium and Conspirata are both wonderful books that bring a fascinating period of history to life, and while one can easily draw parallels between the events in these stories and political happenings of today, Harris does a good job of not forcing any comparisons. Both stories are told through the eyes of Tiro, Cicero's faithful slave, who is credited with, believe it or not, the creation of shorthand. Tiro as a narrator is mostly passive, reminding me of some of Dostoevsky's narrators, who mostly observe and rarely cause any major things to happen in the story. Though Tiro does manage at times to be important to the story and offers Cicero sagely advice from time to time.
I've read some of Harris's other books, including Archangel, The Ghost, and Pompeii, this last one being about Mount Vesuvius's eruption and destruction of the eponymous city. I've enjoyed all these books immensely, but Harris takes him game - to borrow one of the many overused sports' cliches - to the next level in his stories about Cicero.
I've blogged before about Bernard Cornwell, whom many consider to be the best historical fiction writer working today. Cornwell is a great writer, who really excels at describing combat tactics and bloody battles. And like I said before, I consider the Warlord Trilogy to be one of my two favorite trilogies of all time.
Harris, on the other hand, excels at telling cerebral stories brimming with political intrigue. Is one writer better than the other? It would be unfair to compare the two, since they're trying to do different things with their stories, but needless to say, I recommend both authors to all fans of historical fiction.
(Interesting tidbit: Harris's book, The Ghost, was recently made into the movie, The Ghost Writer, directed by none other than Roman Polanski.)
(Interesting tidbit 2: I share a birthday with Cicero. Now if only I shared his wit, eloquence, and oratorical skills.)