Day 1107: Conclave

Cover for ConclaveThe only book I’ve ever read featuring a papal conclave (except one of Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series books, which has one as a subplot) was Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. That novel featured a series of bizarre murders. Robert Harris is skilled enough to generate the same level of suspense through secrets and activities that are much more likely.

As Dean of the College of Cardinals, it is Cardinal Lomeli’s job to conduct the conclave after the death of the Pope. Not only is Lomeli sincerely grieved at the Pope’s death, but he is also dedicated to doing his job well. He thinks the front-runners for the office will be Cardinal Tremblay, the Canadian Camerlengo; Cardinal Bellini, the Secretary of State; Adeyemi, the African Cardinal Major Penitentiary; and Cardinal Tedesco, the Patriarch of Venice.

Just before the cardinals are sequestered, a new cardinal appears, Vincent Benítez, newly appointed Archbishop of Baghdad. No one knows about the new appointment, but his credentials seem to be in order, and his appointment was kept secret because of the vulnerability of a Catholic cardinal in Iraq.

Another problem Archbishop Wozniak reports is that Cardinal Tremblay met with the late Pope just before the Pope died. Cardinal Wozniak tells Cardinal Lomeli the Pope confided to him that he had asked Cardinal Tremblay to resign from all his offices. Tremblay denies that this conversation took place and implies that the Pope was becoming unstable.

The suspense mounts as each vote fails to choose a candidate and secrets are revealed. Lomeli is dismayed to find himself becoming a viable candidate as others fall out of the running. He also finds indications that the late Pope was putting things in motion, months before his death, to affect the election.

Again, Harris has written a suspenseful and deeply interesting novel. The characters seem convincing—Cardinal Lomeli is extremely likable and all demonstrate human foibles without being caricatures. The ending is somewhat unbelievable, and although it is not really predictable, I was able to guess at something similar. That is a small caveat, though. All in all, Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite genre writers.

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Day 1084: Dictator

Cover for DictatorDictator is the final volume in Robert Harris’s trilogy about the great Roman statesman, Cicero. This trilogy has truly been spell-binding.

The novel begins in dark times for Cicero, when he and his family are hounded out of Rome by Julius Caesar, his greatest enemy. Cicero was made to look ridiculous in Colleen McCullough’s series about Caesar, but Harris sees him differently, as a man staunchly in support of the dying Republic. On the other hand, McCullough pictured Caesar much more sympathetically, while Harris shows him as a man run mad with the desire for power.

For me, this novel flagged just a little bit in the middle, while momentous events in Rome are described from afar. I think my reaction is partly because I thought I knew what happened to Cicero and was dreading it. But I actually didn’t know my Roman history that well, so I was a little bit off. In any case, the novel picks right up as soon as Cicero rejoins the action.

Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite historical novelists. He writes a good, tight political thriller based on true events. I am already looking for his most recent novel.

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Day 1057: Conspirata

Cover for ConspirataConspirata is the second of Robert Harris’s Cicero novels, published originally as Lustrum, and is on my list of books for the Walter Scott prize. This series has been unexpectedly compelling for me. I had previously read Colleen McCullough’s series about Julius Caesar, and this series is such a contrast to it.

The novel begins at the start of Cicero’s four-year term as consul and ends shortly after it. During this time, Cicero is continually at odds with his enemies, who wish to dismantle the Republic. The most powerful of these enemies are the billionaire Crassus and Julius Caesar.

Although the intrigues in this novel are all political, that doesn’t make them any less thrilling. Harris depicts some of the most important figures in Roman history as men almost deranged by a need for power. We have strong sympathy for Cicero as he navigates the difficulties of Roman political life, forced into unpleasant choices but always trying to work for the good of Rome. This is a great series.

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Day 1026: Imperium

Cover for ImperiumBest Book of the Week!
One of the books on my Walter Scott prize list is the second in Robert Harris’s trilogy about Cicero, so I thought I’d start with this first book. The only other straightforward historical series about this period of Roman history that I’ve read is Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series about Julius Caesar. This series makes an interesting contrast.

The novel is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and amanuensis. Cicero is already in his 30’s when the novel begins with his decision to prosecute the corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres. Cicero is usually an advocate, but he sees in this case a way to further his ambitions to ultimately become consul.

Although corrupt governors are apparently not unusual, Verres has completely abused his authority, by even condemning to death without due process a Roman citizen or two, something that was unspeakable to the Romans. Still, as a policy the powerful aristocrats are behind him, including the renowned orator Hortensius, who is defending Verres. Cicero must take a trip to Sicily to collect evidence.

This novel is a really fine combination of a legal and political thriller. McCullough’s series was mostly positive on Julius Caesar and negative on Cicero, even faintly ridiculing him. Harris’s novel makes Cicero a complicated sympathetic character and Caesar a slippery conniver. If you are at all interested in this period, I highly recommend this novel. And for excellent plotting and writing, I recommend it if you are at all interested in historical fiction.

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Day 1008: An Officer and a Spy

Cover for An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus Affair. Of course, we know how the Dreyfus affair turned out, but in writing about it, Robert Harris has managed to infuse the story with suspense. He accomplishes this by concentrating not on what happens to Dreyfus himself but on the man who exposed the sham.

At the beginning of the novel, Georges Picquart is only peripherally involved in the Dreyfus affair, but the generals in charge see him as helpful and he is rewarded by being put in charge of the Statistical Section, the army’s intelligence department. Picquart does not want the post, but he soon finds he is good at his job.

His staff seems distrustful of him, while he believes that some of their methods are sloppy. He receives intelligence that indicates that there is still a traitor in the French army, and it is not long before he figures out that the army has found Dreyfus guilty for crimes committed by a Major Esterhazy.

When Picquart notifies his superiors of what he believes is a mistake, his investigation is shut down. Soon, he is sent on a mission out of the country and begins to believe that his own staff is working to discredit him. It becomes clear to him that Dreyfus was actually framed for Esterhazy’s crimes in a climate of antisemitism.

Soon, Picquart is striving to save his own career and reputation. But he also refuses to give up on his campaign to right a wrong.

This novel is deeply involving and at times truly exciting. I have not read Harris before, but picked this up because of my project to read finalists for the Walter Scott prize and since I have read it, have read most of Harris’s Cicero trilogy. This novel is a masterful historical novel that is full of suspense.

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