Imperium follows the early years of the great Roman orator, Cicero, told from the perspective of his (slave) scribe. It deals with the intricate politics of the Roman republic in the years leading up to its collapse, where it was replaced with the emperors.
The characterization of Cicero is excellent, with his quick wit and powerful speeches. At the core of his character is his desire to further his career and the desire to safeguard the republic from tyranny – forces that are often fundamentally at odds with each other. Seeing how he deals with situations when being pulled in opposite directions is one of the best parts of the book.
The narrator, Cicero’s scribe Tiro, is also an interesting character in his own right. The author, Robert Harris, has made a concerted effort to give him agency, and avoid him just being an extension of Cicero. One way he achieves this is by giving Tiro moments where he speaks directly to the audience. I found this slightly disconcerting at first, but I now realize they served a dual purpose: taking you out of the individual moment of the story so that you can think about the bigger picture, and allowing Harris to signpost other characters or events that have relevance later. This second point is particularly important, as the book (the first of a trilogy) has many names, many who are just not very significant to the overall plot.
I also think the plot was well-constructed. Historical fiction can sometimes fall into the trap of already knowing what the events are and so having bland sections in between the key moments – this was never the case here. Furthermore, Harris seems to know a great deal about this time period, and is sure to incorporate it in the smallest details. This is what makes the book come alive in my opinion.
There is a lot of technical, often latin, vocabulary. This wasn’t an issue for me, as I study latin at A level, and have studied ancient history in the past, but it could require some googling for readers unfamiliar with the time period. I’m not certain of that though, since I can recall places where Harris explains it well, and other places where it is less good.
As a historical, political thriller, this book likely has wide appeal. It is quick, witty and dangerous. It immerses you in a different culture and time period. It has complex characters, who I found to be surprisingly relatable. I’d easily recommend it to any thriller fan.
6.5 out of 7 is my rating. The only small issue I had was that the ending was slightly unsatisfactory. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad ending, and it ended where it did because it is part of a trilogy, but it still just didn’t sit quite right with me. Other than that, this book is stunning.