That last reading roundup was all very well you say, but have I read more books this spring? Why yes I have and these are they.
#1: Lustrum (Robert Harris, 2009)
This is the middle volume in Robert Harris’s superb trilogy about the life of Cicero and the fall of the Roman Republic. Harris is a novelist whose every book is a highlight of my reading year, without fail, and I’m yet to read a duff one. Even among the quality of his oeuvre, I think these Cicero books are his masterpiece (for sure helped by me being a bit of a Rome nut).
The first book, Imperium, ended with the great orator on the up and up after being elected consul, and Lustrum then focuses on his tenure in that office. This mainly revolves around dealing with the Catilinarian Conspiracy, and Cicero’s battles for dominance with the other big dogs of the Republic: Caesar, Crassus, Pompey, and Clodius.
The thing I really love about this trilogy is the characterisation. Harris makes these historical figures really come stand out in all their flawed, scheming glory, and in their hands the horsetrading and politicking that makes up much of the plot, and which could otherwise be pretty dry, flares into life.
Cicero himself is one of those brilliantly attractive protagonists, a bit like Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, whose actions are often pragmatic, politically expedient and not necessarily morally right, and yet we love him for his charisma, intelligence and essential nobility in spite of his flaws. I’d say that, particularly for those interested in Roman history or politics, this trilogy is right up there with Robert Graves’s I Claudius books as the cream of the crop.
Arrow | 2010 | 452p | Paperback | Buy here
#2: Conqueror (Conn Iggulden, 2011)
Conqueror is the last in Conn Iggulden’s epic five-book series about Genghis Khan and his descendants. While the first three (Wolf of the Plains, Lords of the Bow and Bones of the Hills) specifically told the story of Genghis himself, the fourth (Empire of Silver) then moved on to cover the reign of his son Ogedai, and this final one takes in the successive khanates of three of Genghis’s grandsons, Guyuk, Mongke and Kublai.
Although most people will have at least heard of Genghis Khan, I don’t think that the extent of the Mongol Empire and the scale of what was achieved by the khans and their armies is that well known – it certainly wasn’t to me. Within just three generations Genghis and his successors had united the disparate Mongol tribes into one nation and then swiftly and brutally conquered Persia, China, Russia and Eastern Europe. These guys were the toughest of tough nuts, metal AF.
Conqueror’s main focus is Kublai’s coming-of-age as a commander as he fought an exhausting war of attrition over many years in Sung Dynasty China. There are plenty of battles and Iggulden writes them well, but the grinding nature of this particular conflict means that it’s not always totally thrilling for the reader and gets a bit repetitive. However, Kublai himself is very appealing and is the highlight of this final book; his intellectualism and flashes of humour make him stand out from the crowd of grim vicious bastards that constitute the majority of the rest of the cast of characters.
For sheer epic sweep these books can’t really be bettered, and Iggulden does a fine job evoking an era and a culture little covered in historical fiction.
Harper | 2012 | 576p | Paperback | Buy here
#3: The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson, 2006)
I know, how have I not read this already? Everyone did the Salander trilogy years ago, and I missed out for some reason, but, a decade later, this is being rectified.
I quite liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when I read it back in 2011, but I didn’t love it, mainly because Mr Larsson rambled on far too much at the beginning and the end, packing in endless extraneous detail and extending the novel to about twice the length it should have been. And sadly in this, the sequel, he did the same thing!
Whereas Dragon Tattoo was a whodunnit murder mystery, TGWPWF is more of a conspiracy thriller, with the main theme being the Swedish sex-trafficking industry. Two journalists are murdered at the beginning but it’s pretty clear who’s responsible, and the rest of the story consists of the titular Girl, super-hacker Lisbeth Salander, being framed for the killings and going on the run.
Once the plot got going it was an exciting enough read, and Lisbeth is a fun spiky protagonist, but I thought it was just too baggy. In my view, thrillers like this generally benefit from being trimmed down to their lean mean essentials.
Quercus | 2009 | 608p | Paperback | Buy here