Thursday, October 17, 2013
SPQR - John Maddox Roberts
1990; 215 pages. New Author? : No. Updated Title : The King’s Gambit (SPQR 1). Genre : Historical Adventure; Murder-Mystery. Book 1 (out of 14, plus some additional short stories) in the “SPQR” series. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
On the streets of Rome, in 70 BC, someone has murdered the ex-gladiator, Marcus Ager. They didn’t even do it the Roman way (with a sword); they strangled him. Oh well, there are slayings every night in Rome. What's one more dead commoner?
It is Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger’s responsibility to look into crimes in this neighborhood and he feels honor-bound to do so. But no one expects him to be thorough about it. Indeed, there are some who strongly encourage him to curtail his snooping and just turn in a sanitized report.
Then the bodies start to pile up.
What’s To Like...
If you read SPQR as a murder-mystery, you may be a tad disappointed. You’ll probably figure out the “who” of the whodunit early on; and while the “why” is uncovered gradually, there aren’t any major twists to the investigation. The intrigue behind the plot is complex, though, and figuring out the “who” behind that is more of a challenge.
But as a Historical Adventure, SPQR is superb. You’ll go to the markets and the public baths with Decius. You’ll slog through ordinary workdays and attend festive holidays. You’ll enjoy everyday meals and lavish feasts. And of course, along the way, you’ll look for clues and try not to get mugged (or worse) when it gets dark.
Decius makes a fine protagonist and an excellent narrator. He has no qualms about pointing out the “warts” of Roman politics; but he’s just as quick to show the strengths of the Roman psyche. There are a slew of characters to meet, greet, and examine as possible suspects. For the most part, the characters are gray – some of the highborn are scoundrels; some of the lowborn, if lacking in charm, at least have a measure of integrity in them.
The ending is well-crafted. The investigation may be straightforward; but its resolution has a couple of nice twists.
Kewlest New Word. . .
Fructifying (adj.) : making (something) fruitful or productive
“It is always good to know what men of power are saying in Rome these days. And while Hortalus was the only man present tonight who wields real power, the rest show great promise for the future.”
“Even Curius and Catilina?” I asked.
“Men don’t have to be intelligent or capable or of good character to play an important role in the high affairs of state. It is quite sufficient to be bad and dangerous.” (pg. 60)
“It is the greatest game in the world. It is played on a board made up of kingdoms and republics and seas. The men are just counters. They are placed on the board according to the skill of the players.” She paused. “And there is the uncertainty of luck, of course.”
“Fortuna can be a whimsical goddess,” I said.
“I don’t believe in the gods. If they exist at all, they take no interest in what men do. But I believe in blind chance. It just makes the game more interesting.” (pg. 187)
“He's a patrician. You can kill them, but they don't take humiliation well." (pg. 130)
This is the second book I’ve read in this series. My first one (Book 4), The Temple of the Muses, is reviewed here. They were both enjoyable reads, particularly for their historical “feel”. One is set in Rome; the other in Alexandria. At just over 200 pages each, they are both “thin” books. But if you’re a history buff, the detailed descriptions in both will keep them from being quick reads.
There are some subtle differences between the two books. The Temple of the Muses seemed to me to have more wit and humor, and the writing felt more polished. OTOH, it also has one or two WTF moments; I didn’t notice any of those in SPQR.
8 Stars. Which is what I gave both books. They’re fascinating looks into life in the Roman Empire at the height of its power. That’s good enough for me.