Friday, July 2, 2010

Friday Review, 7/2/10

Robert Harris - Imperium

The subtitle of the book is "A Novel of Ancient Rome", and that seems pretty accurate. This novel is a fictionalized description of Cicero's rise to the position of Consul in Rome. Its a political/legal novel, in that politicians in Rome were also lawyers. The novel appears to be well researched - I can't really say, since Ancient Rome is entirely outside of my area of study, but there's a lot of detail. Arguably too much detail - I found myself having trouble keeping track of basic character points.

The book was published in 2006, and contains a lot of digs at the political process in the US now - the constant campaigning for office, the "issues" candidate, the compromises that politicians make. There was a strong sense of "plus ca change," which made the whole book a little more relevant, perhaps. At any rate, in answer to the question of "Are We Rome?", Harris seems clearly to believe yes.

In terms of format, Harris has combined what amount to two novellas into a single work. The first covers Cicero's rise to notoriety through his successful prosecution of a corrupt governor of Sicily. The second opens with his successful defense of a corrupt governor of Gaul, which cements his position as a patriotic Roman, and charts his rise through the power structures to become Consul, one of the two men who rule Rome. Either of the parts of the book would probably have stood alone - the second one would have needed a re-introductory chapter, perhaps - but they worked well together.

Over all, the novel lacked action. I'm not sure where action could have been added - it was a novel about politics, after all - but there was a lot of talking and not a lot of doing, and on the whole it felt a little flat.

Things I liked - complex characters, a good sense of research, winking references to current events. Things I disliked - the lack of a map - a map would have gone a LONG way to improving this book for me, the lack of a cheat sheet on Roman politics, the lack of a dramatis personae, and the lack of a full author's note explaining the background - I think these are not too much to expect from a historical novel. The short author's note states that the matter of the novel could certainly have happened, and much of it did happen, and the stuff that didn't happen can't be proved not to have happened. Harris used Cicero's speeches as his primary source. There is a sequel, I might pick it up.

Steve Barnes and Tananarive Due From Cape Town, With Love

This is the third novel in a series which I've been following with some interest. Based on a character that Blair Underwood created, Tennyson Hardwick, these are mystery novels with a strong male black protagonist (as you might expect, given the people involved in the project.) The goal, beyond telling good stories (at which these novels succeed, by the way), is to tell good stories about strong black characters, to fill a niche currently open in the hopes of attracting young black writers to write novels, and to write screen plays, and ultimately to create a vehicle for strong black actors and actresses that appeals to an American audience. Tennyson Hardwick is a strong character engaged in solving mysteries. He is virile, he is entirely masculine, and he's good at what he does - in short, he's a fairly typical detective type character. Audiences would not blink an eye if he were described as white, but he happens to be black. That is key, of course - these are more than niche marketed books, they are designed to appeal to non-black readers in the way that novels with white protagonists appeal to non-white readers. I think they succeed in that task as well.

This novel opens in South Africa (Cape Town, as the title indicates) and focuses on the adoption of a South African orphan by an American film actress, and the subsequent kidnapping of said adopted orphan. The plot involves international espionage, criminals, some violence, and lots of sex. Relatively standard fare for the genre, although the sex is a little steamier than most detective fiction. (Actually, a lot steamier. It's closer to porn than romance novel, without, I think, becoming porn. Still, decidedly R rated, possibly NC 17.)

On the whole, the book is deeper than much of the rest of the genre, touching on issues like race, national security (and the lengths to which one should be willing to allow the government to go to defend it), adoption, international adoption, the problem of fame, and a slew of other things. None of the issues rise to the level of beating the reader over the head - that would be bad story telling - but it would be hard to dismiss this book as trashy. The characters are strong, the writing is good, the stories are good, and the ending is not as predictable as one might expect.