V2 by Robert Harris

Robert Harris is one of my favourite authors, but I was slightly disappointed by last year’s The Second Sleep. The setting was atmospheric and the concept was fascinating but, like a lot of people, I thought the ending was abrupt and confusing. I’m pleased to say that I found his latest book, V2, much more enjoyable and the perfect distraction from the depressing national and world news and from the pressures of returning to work earlier this month after a long period on furlough.

V2 is set during World War II and follows the stories of two people on different sides of the conflict. Dr Rudi Graf is a German engineer who has played an important part in the development of the V2 rocket. Although his intention was originally to build rockets that could fly to the moon, the technology is now being used by Nazi Germany to carry out attacks on Allied cities, something Graf isn’t entirely comfortable with.

In London, meanwhile, Kay Caton-Walsh, a young officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, narrowly avoids being killed in one of these attacks when a V2 hits the building in which she is staying with her married lover. With her affair in danger of being exposed, Kay jumps at the opportunity to go to Belgium with a group of other WAAF officers on a mission to locate the V2 launch site and prevent the weapons from being used in any more strikes.

The whole novel takes place during just five days in November 1944, with Graf’s narrative alternating with Kay’s until eventually their stories begin to come together. I found both of them equally interesting to read about, but I was particularly impressed with the way Harris makes Graf such a sympathetic character, despite the fact that he is at least partly responsible for the death and destruction caused by the V2. His gradual disillusionment with his work is plain to see and he ends up being confronted with some moral dilemmas as a result. Kay’s work is rather different – she is trying to save lives rather than destroy them – but she also finds herself facing some difficult decisions when she begins to question who can and cannot be trusted.

The thriller element of the novel is very well done, with the tension rising chapter by chapter as each rocket is launched and Kay and her fellow WAAF officers race against the clock to stop them. The women are equipped with logarithm tables, slide rules and an ability to make quick and accurate calculations, but still feel under an immense amount of pressure, knowing that lives depend on their mathematical skills. The story does get quite technical at times, but don’t worry if you’re not a scientist or mathematician – the plot is easy enough to follow even if you don’t fully understand every aspect of Kay’s or Graf’s work.

The novel is equally successful as a portrayal of life in various parts of wartime Europe, from Mechelen in Belgium where Kay is stationed, newly liberated from the Germans but still feeling the effects, to the forests of the Occupied Netherlands where Graf and his team are launching the V2 rockets. Although the V2 is an imprecise and expensive weapon and ultimately seen as a waste of German resources, it is still capable of causing enormous destruction and loss of life. It is in the sections of the book set in London that we see the evidence of this, such as when 168 people are killed in one strike on a branch of Woolworths, which is packed with shoppers who have heard that a new consignment of saucepans has just been delivered.

V2 has not become an absolute favourite Harris novel – I don’t think it really compares with An Officer and a Spy or the Cicero trilogy – but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I have had Munich, an earlier book by Harris, on my TBR for a few years, so I’m hoping to find time to read that one soon too.

Thanks to Random House UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Robert Harris has become a favourite author of mine in recent years; I loved An Officer and a Spy, the Cicero trilogy and Conclave, and so far only Archangel has disappointed me. When I received a copy of his new novel, The Second Sleep, a few weeks ago, I was so excited about reading it that I dropped several other books I was in the middle of so I could start it immediately. But would it live up to my high expectations?

The first thing to say is that, if I had started to read this book without knowing the author’s name, I would probably never have guessed it was by Robert Harris as it’s so different from all of the others I’ve read! Whether or not you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing will depend on whether you prefer to know what to expect from an author or whether you like a lot of diversity. Personally I found this a bit too different and it took me quite a long time to settle into the story. Once I did, I started to enjoy it, but I can’t say that this has become a favourite by Harris.

At first The Second Sleep appears to be a conventional historical mystery. We are told that the year is 1468 and we are introduced to a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, who has just arrived in a small, remote village in the south-west of England to conduct the funeral of parish priest Father Lacy. Fairfax expects to return to Exeter Cathedral within a day or two, but when he discovers that there may have been suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Father Lacy, he ends up staying in the village for much longer than planned. It seems that the old priest had been putting together a collection of forbidden books and artefacts and it was this which may have led to his death.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot. After a few chapters it becomes obvious that there is nothing conventional at all about this story, so I would hate to give too much away and spoil things for other readers. All I will say is that the central idea on which the novel is based is both fascinating and frightening, as well as having a lot of relevance to today’s society.

The Second Sleep is a very atmospheric novel and Harris carefully builds a sense of time and place, describing the landscape, the lives of the villagers and the sense of isolation that comes with living in such a remote location. Up in the hills, an unusual construction known as the Devil’s Chair – where Father Lacy fell to his supposedly accidental death – becomes the focus of the strange occurrences taking place in and around the village. It’s a bleak and eerie setting which perfectly suits this unusual and unsettling story.

Although this book never quite reached page-turner status for me, the pace did pick up after a while and the ideas the novel explored were intriguing enough to keep me interested. The story seemed to be building towards something dramatic and I expected more twists and revelations at the end. When the ending came, however, I was left thinking, ‘is that it?’ I wondered if I had missed something, so I read the final chapter again but found it no more satisfying the second time. Looking at other early reviews of this novel (the book is published today here in the UK), most people have loved it, so although I did find a lot to enjoy I’m sorry that I couldn’t quite manage to love it too. I do have both Munich and Pompeii on my shelf, though, and am still looking forward to reading both of those sooner rather than later.

Thanks to the publisher Hutchinson for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Archangel by Robert Harris

After reading Conclave recently and reminding myself of how much I love Robert Harris, I was pleased to find a copy of Archangel at the library. Although this was not one that sounded particularly appealing to me and I suspected it wasn’t going to be a favourite, I still wanted to read it – the other Harris novels I’ve read have been his newer ones and I was curious to see what his earlier books were like (Archangel was published in 1998).

The story is set in Russia in the 1990s, during the Boris Yeltsin years just after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. British historian Christopher Kelso – better known as ‘Fluke’, for reasons which are explained within the novel – is attending a conference in Moscow at which the recent opening of the Soviet archives will be discussed. During the conference, Fluke is approached by Papu Rapava, an elderly man who claims that he was present at the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and that he witnessed the theft of a black notebook which belonged to Stalin and was believed to be his secret diary.

This diary, if it really exists, could be the academic breakthrough Fluke needs to revive his career, but it will also be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. Choosing to believe that Rapava is telling the truth, Fluke begins a search for the notebook – but what he finds is not quite what he had expected. Following a trail of clues leading north to the remote city of Archangel, he makes a discovery that could affect not only his own future but Russia’s future as well.

The first thing to say is that this book, being more of a conventional thriller, is quite different from the other five Robert Harris books I’ve read. It’s also my least favourite so far, but I’d had a feeling that would be the case, so at least my expectations weren’t too high! I did find things to enjoy and at times I was completely gripped, but there were too many other aspects of the book that were a problem for me.

First of all, the characters: because of the nature of the story, most of the characters are very unlikeable – a mixture of ambitious politicians, unscrupulous journalists and people with dangerous ideas. As for Fluke Kelso, our hero, I found him bland and uninteresting, especially when compared with the protagonists of other Harris novels; he certainly lacked the depth and complexity of Cardinal Lomeli in my most recent Harris read, Conclave. The character who was potentially most engaging, Rapava’s daughter Zinaida, had an important role but we didn’t see as much of her as I would have liked.

In terms of plot, the novel gets off to a promising start, with Fluke learning about the night of Stalin’s death and then following clues which he hopes will lead him to the mysterious black notebook. However, the big revelation, when it comes, is something so far-fetched I just couldn’t believe in it, and the scenes which follow feel over the top and implausible too, which was a shame after so much care had been put into building the tension and creating a sense of mystery.

The descriptions of 1990s Moscow and snowbound Archangel are very well done and, as I’ve said, the book is quite a pageturner at times, so I still think it’s worth reading – particularly if you are more interested in Soviet history than I am. Apparently there was a BBC adaptation in 2005 starring Daniel Craig. Has anyone seen it?

Conclave by Robert Harris

Robert Harris has become one of my favourite authors over the last few years – his three Cicero novels and An Officer and a Spy are all excellent – so I had every intention of picking up his latest book, Conclave, as soon as it was published in 2016. The time never seemed quite right, though, which is why it wasn’t until last week that I finally settled down to read it.

Unlike the other Harris novels I’ve read, which were set in the past, Conclave is set in the modern day; the actual date is never stated, but there are enough clues to indicate that it’s in the very near future. As the title suggests, it is a fictional account of a papal conclave – the meeting at which cardinals gather to elect a new pope. Although there have been two conclaves in recent years (resulting in the election of Pope Francis in 2013 and Benedict XVI in 2005), I have to confess that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to either – I remember the television cameras waiting for the first glimpse of white smoke emerging from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the crowds assembling in St Peter’s Square and the announcements of the papal name each new pope had chosen, but not much else. Rest assured, though, that you need have absolutely no familiarity with the conclave process or with the politics of the Catholic Church in order to enjoy this book!

Following the death of an unnamed pope, the reader is guided through the entire conclave by Jacopo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, the man responsible for overseeing the election. With over one hundred cardinals from all over the world arriving at the Vatican to participate, there are plenty of contenders for the papal throne and voting takes place as a series of ballots which continue until a clear winner is found. At first, the sheer number of characters in the novel is overwhelming; we are introduced to cardinal after cardinal and I knew I would never be able to keep them all straight in my mind – but as it turned out, I didn’t really need to. It quickly emerges that there are only a few who have a real chance of becoming pope and Harris does a great job of helping us get to know each of the candidates and to form an opinion of whether they would or would not make a good Holy Father. Ambitious or humble, honest or unscrupulous, each has his own strengths and weaknesses and, as Harris is a writer of thrillers, you can also expect lots of secrets to be revealed, some of which have the potential to influence the outcome of the conclave.

Cardinal Lomeli is a wonderful character. In his position as Dean, he is usually the first to discover the secrets I’ve just mentioned, and must decide how to deal with them. Time after time, he is forced to examine his conscience: is he really just doing his duty or is he in danger of interfering too much? Does he simply believe that the truth must be told or could he be accused of trying to manipulate the result of the election? It’s all very exciting and as the voting pattern changed with each fresh ballot, I became more and more anxious to find out who was going to be the new pope! I knew who I wanted to be chosen and who I suspected would be chosen, but Harris kept me waiting until the very end of the book to find out for sure.

And, unfortunately, it was the ending which struck the only wrong note for me. I had been able to sense that some sort of twist was coming up, and when it did, I felt slightly cheated. It was something that had actually passed through my mind earlier in the novel, only to be dismissed because I had also thought of several other, more convincing ways in which the story could end. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific and explain what I mean, but it would definitely be a spoiler! Still, apart from the ending (which I’m sure some readers will like more than I did), I did thoroughly enjoy this book. It was tense, gripping and – with my complete lack of knowledge of what a conclave involves – absolutely fascinating!

I spotted an earlier Robert Harris novel, Archangel, at the library yesterday so that will be the next of his books that I’ll be reading. It’s not one that had sounded particularly appealing to me, but I’m more than happy to give it a try.

Dictator by Robert Harris

Dictator This is the third and final volume of Robert Harris’s fictional biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the Roman philosopher, lawyer and statesman. I loved the previous two novels, Imperium and Lustrum, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I loved Dictator too. Until recently, I didn’t have much interest in Ancient Rome and would never have thought that I could find reading about the intricacies of Roman politics so exciting and fascinating. How wrong I was! In fact, the only negative thing I can say about this trilogy is that it has now come to an end.

Dictator covers the last fifteen years of Cicero’s life, though as the title suggests, the focus of the book is on the rise and fall of Julius Caesar. At the beginning of the novel, Cicero has been forced into exile by his enemy, Publius Clodius Pulcher, and with the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus now governing Rome it seems unlikely that he will be able to return. Loyalties and allegiances change quickly in the Roman Republic, however, and eventually it does become possible for Cicero to come home, to be reunited with his family and to return to politics and the senate.

As he tries to settle back into his old life in Rome, Cicero discovers that it is not the same city he left just a year before and when the tensions between Caesar and Pompey lead to civil war, he knows he is witnessing the destruction of the republic. With the assassination of Caesar after several years of dictatorship comes the sense that Rome is entering a new era, but Cicero will face further challenges with the rise to power of the dictator’s adopted son, Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire).

As Dictator is the book which brings the trilogy to a close, there’s a sadness which wasn’t present in the first two books, with the deaths of several major characters and the collapse of the Roman Republic. It’s also sad to see Cicero’s relationship with his wife, Terentia, deteriorate beyond repair. It was never a very happy marriage, but now Cicero acknowledges that Terentia has had enough:

“Only at that moment did I realise how much she must have suffered, living in Caesar’s Rome and being married to me. I cannot say I felt love for her any more, but I did feel great pity and affection and sadness, and I resolved there and then to make no mention of money or property – it was all done with, as far as I was concerned.”

Like the first two novels, this book is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, a man who really did exist and who is credited with inventing an early form of shorthand. After Cicero’s death, Tiro published his master’s letters and collected works, and is thought to have also written a biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Tiro’s role in this trilogy is primarily to tell Cicero’s story, recording his words and actions and making observations on his master’s character and the characters of Rome’s other leading figures. Here he describes meeting Julius Caesar:

“How unreal it felt to watch the approach of this titan who had so dominated everyone’s thoughts for so many years – who had conquered countries and upended lives and sent thousands of soldiers marching hither and thither, and had smashed the ancient republic to fragments as if it were nothing more substantial than a chipped antique vase that had gone out of fashion – to watch him, and to find him, in the end…just an ordinary breathing mortal!”

Over the course of the three novels we see how Cicero comes to rely on Tiro not just as a servant but also as a friend – one of the only people in the world he knows he can truly trust. Tiro’s admiration and affection for Cicero also come across strongly but this doesn’t mean he is unable to see Cicero’s faults. Through Tiro’s eyes, Cicero is portrayed as a brilliant yet flawed man, his wisdom, talent and generosity offset by vanity and self-importance. He is sometimes too quick to speak before he thinks, particularly when he is unable to resist making a joke at someone else’s expense, and this often has serious consequences. I enjoyed getting to know Cicero, with all his faults, and was sorry to come to the end of his story.

Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator are three wonderful books – well-written, well-researched and with a feeling of authenticity. Highly recommended, but try to read them in order if possible. I’m now looking forward to returning to the Roman Empire with an earlier Robert Harris novel, Pompeii.

Lustrum by Robert Harris

Lustrum Lustrum (also published under the title Conspirata) is the second of a trilogy of fictional biographies of the Roman statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero. The first book in the trilogy, Imperium, was one of my favourite reads of the year so far and I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed Lustrum even more. A note from the author at the beginning of the book states that both novels can be read independently, but my advice would still be to read them in order, particularly if, like me, you have never read about Cicero’s life before.

The three novels (the third is called Dictator) are narrated by Cicero’s slave and secretary, Tiro, a real historical figure believed to have invented an early form of shorthand and thought to have written a genuine biography of Cicero which was lost during the fall of Rome. Imperium is a recreation of the first part of Tiro’s biography and covers the beginnings of Cicero’s political career, ending just as he is elected one of Rome’s two consuls. Lustrum continues the story, taking us through the year of Cicero’s consulship and the four years that follow (the term ‘lustrum’ is the name given to a five-year period in Ancient Rome).

The period of Cicero’s life covered in Lustrum is a time of highs and lows. As consul for the year 63 BC, he faces the biggest challenge of his career so far when he uncovers a conspiracy led by the senator Catilina to assassinate him and overthrow the Roman Republic. Cicero is awarded the title “Father of the Country” for the part he plays in dealing with this threat to Rome, but even his newfound popularity can’t protect him from the further plots and machinations of his enemies Gaius Julius Caesar and Publius Clodius Pulcher.

What a great book this is! I was completely gripped from beginning to end, immersed in Cicero’s world, watching as he struggles with his conscience, tries to make difficult moral decisions and attempts to outwit powerful men like Caesar, Crassus and Pompey the Great (the First Triumvirate). I realise a book about Roman politicians may not sound very exciting, but this one really is.

While I found it difficult to keep track of some of the minor characters and the relationships between them (bearing in mind I have very little knowledge of Ancient Rome) there is some great characterisation when it comes to the more well known names. I particularly loved the portrayal of Cato the Younger! Caesar comes across very much as the villain in this trilogy, but remembering that we only see things from the perspective of Cicero (via Tiro), we are obviously being given a biased view of his actions. The same story told from Caesar’s point of view would clearly be very different.

By Glauco92 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Cicero, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Tiro himself remains in the background, as he did in Imperium, but there is a small amount of character development for him; he even finds a love interest, although nothing really comes of it. But at the heart of the story, of course, is Marcus Tullius Cicero. The portrait of Cicero given to us by Tiro is generally very positive – he is clever and ambitious and usually (though not always) tries to do what he believes is best for the Roman Republic. But he also has a lot of faults and flaws: his arrogance and overconfidence lead him to make some poor choices and he is not above entering into dubious political alliances with men such as his fellow consul, Hybrida, whom he knows are corrupt or incompetent and don’t have Rome’s best interests at heart.

One of the things I love about the way Robert Harris portrays Rome is that he manages to make it feel historically accurate yet strangely contemporary at the same time. There are debates over foreign policy, a court case involving a sex scandal and questions asked over politicians’ expenses, all things which still happen in modern politics. As with Imperium, the scenes set in the senate are particularly dramatic and full of tension, making me wish I had been there to hear one of Cicero’s famous speeches for myself.

Lustrum was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2010. I am grateful to the Prize for pointing me in the direction of Robert Harris; as well as the two Cicero books, I also loved An Officer and a Spy (the 2014 winner). I’m now looking forward to finishing this trilogy with Dictator and also to reading more fiction set in the Roman Republic and seeing how other authors portray the same characters and events.

Imperium by Robert Harris

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

These are the words of the Roman statesman, orator, philosopher and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero, a man who lived many centuries before I was born and of whom, thanks to Robert Harris, I am no longer ignorant. I had heard of Cicero, of course, but knew very little about his work and nothing at all about his personal life. Now that I’ve read Imperium, the first in a trilogy of novels narrated by Cicero’s slave and secretary, Tiro, I know much more about both.

Imperium Tiro, like Cicero, really existed and is thought to have written a biography of his master which was unfortunately lost during the fall of the Roman Empire. Imperium is a fictional recreation of the first part of Tiro’s biography and follows Cicero from his humble beginnings as he progresses up the ladder of Roman politics and pursues his ambition of becoming one of Rome’s two Consuls.

As a ‘new man’ – in other words, the first in his family to be elected to the Roman Senate – Cicero’s incredible rise to power is a result of hard work, intelligence and natural ability. He is able to put these skills to good use in his position as lawyer, as we see in the first half of the book when he agrees to prosecute Gaius Verres, the governor of Sicily, who has the support of Rome’s aristocracy despite being accused of corruption. The court case is a victory for Cicero but the drawback of this is that he has made enemies of the aristocrats, who will do whatever they can to prevent him rising any further…

As I’ve mentioned before, Ancient Rome has never been one of my favourite periods to read about, so a few months ago I compiled a list of books that I hoped would change the way I feel about Roman history. Imperium is the first novel I’ve selected from that list and it was a fantastic choice. I’d had high hopes for it anyway, because another book by Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy, was one of my favourite reads of last year, but I enjoyed this one even more than I’d hoped! A book about Roman politics may sound boring, but I can assure you it’s not. Harris is an author of thrillers as well as historical fiction and this is an exciting, entertaining read, not just an educational one. The trial of Verres is as gripping as anything I’ve read and there are more tense moments later in the book, such as when Cicero sends Tiro to spy on a secret meeting of rival senators.

The characterisation of Cicero is wonderful. Seen through the eyes of Tiro, I felt that there was a slight distance between Cicero and the reader at first, but as the story went on I started to like and admire him more and more, especially during his investigations of Verres, when he conducted himself with so much honesty and integrity. It’s not long before some flaws start to appear – as he sets his sights on the positions of aedile, praetor and finally consul, we see him beginning to sacrifice some of his principles for the sake of ambition – but this just makes him more human. Tiro himself is the perfect choice of narrator – someone who is happy to get on with telling the story without intruding into it too much. As the inventor of one of the earliest forms of shorthand he becomes indispensable to Cicero so it’s quite believable that he accompanies Cicero almost everywhere, taking notes and recording conversations.

Cicero was known as a great orator and Harris really captures the power of some of his speeches in the senate and the court. Many of his letters, writings and transcripts of speeches are still available which means Harris would have been able to draw on those to put words into the fictional Cicero’s mouth. While I don’t have enough knowledge to be able to comment on the historical accuracy of the novel, there’s nothing that feels noticeably inaccurate – as he says in his author’s note, the things in this story either really happened, could have happened, or didn’t definitely not happen.

There’s still so much I would like to say about Imperium, but this post is already becoming very long so I will just quickly mention a few other things I liked: the portrayal of other famous Roman figures of the time, particularly Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great; the details of Cicero’s family life and his relationship with his wife, Terentia; the descriptions of how the Roman legal and political systems worked, especially the complex voting methods that led to high levels of corruption during elections; and the exploration of class differences in Ancient Rome.

Having loved this book so much I’m now looking forward to reading the other two in the trilogy. My copy of Lustrum awaits!