It’s hard to tell what Robert Harris loves more: his subject matter or his audience. I suppose with that opener I’m officially fawning, but having read most of Harris’s bibliography, I’m coming to the conclusion that there are few authors that put in the kind of research, authorship and care that Harris does when writing his historic fiction.
That ethic particularly shines in Harris’s trilogy about Cicero, as narrated by the famed Roman politician-turned-philosopher’s friend and confidant Tiro, and stays constant to the final word of this final novel, “Dictator.” This third installment picks up after Cicero’s initial exile, and follows the final fifteen years of his life as he tries to preserve both his career and the Republic during Julius Caesar’s civil war and ascendancy to dictatorship and self-appointed godhood.
Incidentally, while I’m coming late to the party — “Dictator” was published in October, 2015 — I’m glad that I did. As an American reading this novel during President Trump’s first year in office, it’s hard not to notice sometimes chilling parallels, and I wonder if there aren’t more than a few Senators and Representatives on the Hill feeling like old Cicero. The novel asks a question a lot of Americans are asking themselves: can a Republic’s long-established laws contain a powerful dark horse’s unchecked ambition and ego, not to mention those of his cronies? The “doomed to repeat it” timing definitely enhanced the reading experience.
At any rate, “Dictator” is the full package: Harris knows his subject matter cold and weaves it into a plot that commands the reader’s attention. The characters are fully formed and follow compelling arcs. The tone and style are engaging and the author’s copy flows like a river.
Those points are important, because historic fiction is not history. It must tell a story. Real history aims to pin down the truth of an era through painstaking research. Historians seek the grey areas and the complex dynamics behind the course of human events. I’m sure any historian of ancient Rome could critique “Dictator” and the rest of the Cicero trilogy for any number of missing details or debatable points. However, nuanced study doesn’t generally play well in story-telling, and a well-intentioned author of historic fiction runs the risk of traipsing too far into the weeds and losing the reader. Harris avoids that trap.
I usually eye any series of novels with suspicion. With a few exceptions, many are, at least in my opinion, a publishing conceit designed to capitalize on reader interest. Don’t get me wrong: both author and audience can derive a lot of satisfaction from the arrangement, but it’s not for me. I get too suspicious and start looking for traces of self-indulgence, and abuses of the reader’s time. The result is that either my misgivings undermine my enjoyment, or worse, they’re proved right.
However, there are some stories that truly need multiple volumes to completely tell. Harris’s Cicero trilogy is one of them. Not a word wastes the reader’s time, and every passage keeps the main story and various sub-threads moving along.
I closed the book on “Dictator” and the series with satisfaction that was on par with my anticipation when I initially cracked the cover. So, I’ll chalk that as a win. I hope Harris feels an equal measure of accomplishment, because he should.