Dictator by Robert Harris

Dictator | Robert Harris | 2015 | Hutchinson | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dictator by Robert HarrisIt is 58 BC and Cicero, now middle-aged, has reached the height of a career more illustrious than any could have imagined for a politician and lawyer of such comparatively low origins. But, though consul and Rome’s leading statesman, Cicero’s fall is to be dramatic and thorough, labelled murderer and despot, cast out from his beloved city by a triumvirate brought together by their hatred of Cicero – Crassus, Caesar, Pompey. Not that they are the ones to harry Cicero out of Rome, they have Clodius to do that for them, Cicero’s greatest enemy, never far from his heels, snapping at his throat. Into exile Cicero goes. This a lonely, pointless time for a man who is most himself in the Senate and courts of Rome, conjuring great victories from words, in need of an audience, ready with a quip to delight the crowd. But sometimes Cicero can say the wrong thing, carried away with the moment, in front of the wrong audience. He suffers for that, in his exile and after the moment of joy when he is finally recalled to Rome by the man with whom Cicero has his most complicated relationship, Julius Caesar.

It’s hard to imagine a more fascinating, intriguing and perplexing period of history than these last years of the Roman Republic. Cicero, middle-aged and then old, is our guide through this Roman dystopia. His story, and that of Rome’s transformation through murder, idealism, treachery and war, is told by Cicero’s servant and secretary Tiro, a slave who endures alongside his master even after he finally receives his long overdue emancipation. His love for Cicero, seasoned at times with irritation and exasperation, is here caught on the page. Tiro’s reward for his service is both affection and danger as Tiro accompanies Cicero through Rome’s streets, across seas to distant friendless provinces, in panicked flight or in proud procession. Cicero might be famous, infamous among his fellow citizens, but in Tiro’s eyes he remains a flawed, proud and eager man, but always a witty, likeable companion.

While Tiro’s words haven’t survived the centuries, they are brought alive by Robert Harris in this outstanding finale to his superb Cicero trilogy. Years and other books have separated the novels but my delight in learning that there was to be a conclusion was exceeded by the utter pleasure of reading it. Dictator is a fine novel, as indeed are Imperium and Lustrum, with Harris somehow evoking the violence and upheaval of a long-gone martial society by focusing on the life and career of a man who lived not by the sword but by his words. Rome was built on its contradictions, its idealism co-existing alongside its corruption – a tension so dramatic that it brought down the Republic and Harris captures it brilliantly. Cicero is a lawyer but the court and senate have become lawless, the mob has a power that lawyers can only envy. The assassination of Julius Caesar might seem to some as the beginning of a new era that harks back to the Republic’s earliest days – Cicero himself is alive with the moment – but surely an even bigger monster than Caesar has been unleashed in the shape of Octavius Caesar.

Cicero is shown to fear the outcome that must follow when the triumvirate is reduced to two, Caesar and Pompey. Cicero dreads the end of days will follow and he’s not far off the mark. Robert Harris not only portrays a living, breathing Cicero, he also works a similar magic on creating one of the most sinister figures I have read in a long time – Octavius Caesar. His character hides at times behind letters, public appearances, his relationship to Caesar, but we are in no doubt as to where power now lies and in this new world there is no place for a man like Cicero.

Robert Harris’s handling of the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination and the emergence of Octavius is simply outstanding. A man such as Cicero would have barely known which way was up for some considerable time. It is complicated, not least for those who had to live through it, but all is made clear, dramatic and thrilling in Dictator.

Dictator is a beautifully-written novel, capturing so well the feel of a distant past that we can only imagine. Robert Harris does it for us. The city of Rome and, even more importantly, its people are alive on the page. Some of the most famous characters of Roman history become three-dimensional, with families, aspirations, a determined purpose. Cicero is caught in the middle of it all, sometimes controlling events but, more often than not, caught on their wave. He is always, though, a man to admire. He is brave and loyal, frustrated and proud, petulant and kind. Tiro is our eyes and, through them, Robert Harris allows us, through this marvellous trilogy, to witness one of the most remarkable periods of history, taking us intimately into the lives of the people who shaped it.

Dictator works perfectly well as a stand alone novel but I do recommend that you travel back to the beginning with Imperium, if not before then definitely afterwards.

Other review
An Officer and a Spy

Golden Lion by Wilbur Smith and Giles Kristian

Golden Lion | Wilbur Smith and Giles Kristian | 2015 | HarperCollins | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book

Golden Lion by Wilbur Smith and Giles KristianIt is 1670 and the war between the English and the Dutch has finally ended, bringing peace to the high seas off Africa. That, at least, is the theory but this far from Europe the seas are lawless and there are riches, both slaves and jewels, that are well worth a fight. Hal Courtney is now captain of the Golden Bough. He’s a young man but he’s seen more than he should have, lost more people than he should have, but now he has a chance of happiness. He is at sail to collect from Ethiopia his beloved, Judith Nazet, a great warrior and general in the infant king’s army. Once together they will head south down the African coast to reclaim his father’s treasure.

But as soon as Judith is aboard plans begin to fall awry, the Dutch are after Hal and his ship and they’re not the only ones. A man who is now just half a man, the Buzzard, is after vengeance that only the painful death of Hal, and the theft of Judith, will satisfy. It’s all just a game for the rulers of Africa, especially king Jahan of Zanzibar, as they watch their European overlords drag each other down into a watery grave.

Golden Lion is the latest, the fourteenth, in Wilbur Smith’s long-established Courtney series. I’ve not read the others but this didn’t seem to matter as the book presents a self-contained adventure, depicting the romance of Hal and Judith and the forces against them, which are substantial, powerful and deadly. I’ve not read any Wilbur Smith novels for years, having loved River God and the early historical mysteries such as The Sunbird, but what attracted me to Golden Lion like a magnet was the name of Giles Kristian on the cover as co-author. I am a huge fan of Giles Kristian’s novels and, while I would always prefer to read his solo books – whether of Vikings or Civil War brothers at arms, I couldn’t let Golden Lion slip by unread.

For me, though, Golden Lion felt wholly Wilbur Smith, which may well mean that Giles Kristian has done an excellent job in adapting his own style to the one called for here. I missed the beautiful, visceral brilliance of Kristian’s heroic sagas. The passion and insight is absent here, so too is the taste of the sea on my lips or the stink of blood. But, as I had to keep reminding myself, this is a different kettle of fish entirely and is a Courtney saga novel.

Golden Lion is a swashbuckling high seas adventure that has the potential to thrill from its opening pages – as a burnt and ravaged living corpse is pulled from the sea – until its final chapters set in the lethal African bush. Along the way, we’re taken into exotic Zanibar, with its mix of dire slave markets and opulent harems. This is all painted in vivid Hollywood technicolour. I’ve spent time on Zanzibar and so I loved revisiting it. There are exciting battles at sea, storms and duels. There is love and, perhaps even more passionate, there is hate.

The one aspect that I didn’t care for is its depiction of women. Judith might be a mighty general by reputation but that’s not the Judith we see here, even if she’s useful in a fight. Most of the few women we meet are harem (or hyena) fodder and Judith is no different and there are a few salacious details which I found unpleasant. The ‘General Nazet’ tag felt disingenuous. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Golden Lion and found it a fast, escapist and light read with some fun set scenes.

My biggest hope with Golden Lion is that, just as Kristian’s fans have been drawn to this, a percentage of Wilbur Smith’s enormous fanbase will feel inspired to take a chance and dive in to the books of Giles Kristian, which I suspect that they will enjoy every bit as much as Smith’s.

Other reviews
God of Vengeance
Raven: Blood Eye; Raven: Sons of Thunder; Raven: Odin’s Wolves
The Terror: a short story
The Bleeding Land
Brothers’ Fury

The House on Cold Hill by Peter James

The House on Cold Hill | Peter James | 2015 | Macmillan | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House on Cold Hill by Peter JamesOllie and Caro Harcourt have a wonderful marriage, their family completed by Jade, their 12-year-old daughter. After years of buying, doing up and then selling houses, the Harcourts are finally ready to find a home. They fall in love on sight with Cold Hill House, set in its own grounds, complete with lake, a few miles outside their home city of Brighton. The Georgian mansion is not in a good state of repair and, unfortunately, in his rush to buy his dream home, Ollie pays far less attention to the surveyors’ report than he should. Nevertheless, despite Jade’s understandable sulkiness at leaving her old friends (and new boyfriend) behind, the three Harcourts and their two cats are thrilled with their new house, which has more rooms than they can count. It’s such a shame that within days they discover that there is far more to worry about than damp, leaks, faulty electrics and plumbing, and rodent infestations.

It’s fair to say, as the Harcourts are advised, that any house as old as Cold Hill House is bound to have a whiff of scandal in its past, secrets, unhappiness, some skeletons in its cupboards. Perhaps it is to be expected that these will leave their mark in some way; that shadows, strange lights, a feeling of being watched, are an inevitable part of owning such a grand old building. Ollie is not easy to frighten. He’s a man immersed in the modern world, building websites for a living. Working from home, he enthusiastically grasps the chance to turn this old house into their dream home, spending his hours with builders, trying not to worry about the cost. But soon even Ollie has to question whether the house is quite as happy with the arrangement.

I love a good ghost story and The House on Cold Hill is a thoroughly enjoyable and, at times, deliciously chilling haunted house tale which, while being very traditional in some ways, brings the familiar theme into the present day. The balance of the normal with the not-normal is perfectly done, helped by the appeal of the Harcourt family. Much of the story is told through Ollie’s eyes and he’s an engaging and likeable man, dreaming of achieving the perfect life for his family that he adores. We don’t get to know Caro as well and so, until the novel is well underway, we’re less sure of Caro’s own relationship to the house. Neither she nor Ollie want to spoil the dream. As for the lovely Jade, she’s far more resilient than one might expect and a lot of fun to be around, with her own aspirations revolving around owning a labradoodle. But then there’s the not-normal side of this dream life to deal with. It’s surprising how much Ollie is able – and willing – to explain away, but there is a line waiting to be crossed.

The House on Cold Hill is in places a frightening and disturbing novel. The mood darkens further as Ollie learns more about the history of the house and its owners. I’m not going to give anything away here about any of the things that happen but I made a point of hurrying to finish the book before it got dark. It was on my mind overnight, though…

I enjoyed The House on Cold Hill so much. When it arrived, I couldn’t wait to read it and dived in straight away. I’m so glad I did. My only niggle with the book would be with the constant use of endearments (I felt the same with Peter James’s recent You Are Dead). This is a very minor point, though, and definitely down to personal taste. Apart from that, I can’t fault this wonderful ghost story which, as the pages flew by, took me deeper and deeper into the dark secrets of this coldest of houses. Step inside, if you dare.

Other review
You Are Dead

The Autobiography of James T. Kirk by David A. Goodman

The Autobiography of James T. Kirk | David A. Goodman | 2015 | Titan Books | 272p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Autobiography of James T. Kirk by David A. GoodmanBorn in 2233 on a farm in Iowa, James Tiberius Kirk quickly became fascinated with everything to do with planets and was thrilled at the chance to move to Tarsus IV when he was a boy of 12. Joining Starfleet Academy as soon as he could, Kirk’s career was meteoric, fast becoming ‘Starfleet’s Greatest Captain’ and even more than that – a legend. Shortly before his tragic death in 2293, Kirk completed his astonishing life story, the manuscript given to editor David A. Goodman. Although published posthumously, this autobiography is our first opportunity to look deeper into the mind of this most famous of explorers, all told in his own words, in his own inimitable style.

Introduced by Leonard H. McCoy M.D. and with an afterword by Spock of Vulcan, The Autobiography of James T. Kirk is long overdue. I’ve been fascinated by Kirk for almost my entire life and have been a proud Trekkie for just as long – visiting exhibitions in Las Vegas, attending the odd convention, marvelling at Captain Janeway, swooning over Chakotay. But, obviously, it all began with Kirk and his crew and this book gives us the chance to spend more time with Kirk, in this future world where good always wins and Starfleet rules benevolently further the prosperity and peace of all species, except for those who are evil, and not including those rules that are made to be broken. Because Kirk is a famous rule breaker, too.

It’s fair to say that it’s nigh on impossible reading this book without having in your head the voice of William Shatner bringing its words to life. The good thing is that you really can imagine Shatner saying the words, it’s true enough to the spirit of Kirk for that. The book, though, covers Kirk’s entire life and it’s arguably during the account of the years before Kirk became Captain when the story comes most to life. The anecdotes are a lot of fun, not just recounted, but lived through again with dialogue and action. The later chapters follow closely the episodes from the series and so there is much more familiar ground. But it’s always good to revisit these adventures and spend time with the crew – laughter and sadness combine here just as much as they do in the series. But throughout there are moments of reflection from Kirk as he looks back over episodes that sometimes caused his friends – and family – harm. It’s left to Spock at the end to assess Kirk’s legacy.

A number of good quality colour photographs in the centre contribute to the authentic feel of the autobiography. The book itself is very good looking and well written and is an enjoyable reminder of all that I love about Star Trek and the crew of the Enterprise. As a fan of the series, this is a very hard book to resist. Resistance, though, is probably futile.

Stasi Child by David Young

Stasi Child | David Young | ebook: 2015, Pb: 2016 | Twenty7 | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Child by David YoungIt is 1974 and Berlin is a city divided. The risk that some are prepared to take to flee from East to West is well-known – and not just the risk to themselves but also to their families by association – and so it is a surprise to say the least when Oberleutenant Karin Müller and her deputy Werner Tilsner are called out one wintry night to take charge of the body of a young girl, killed while running not from East to West but from West to East. Müller and Tilsner work for the East German criminal police but it’s not unexpected when Klaus Jäger, a high-ranking officer from the state police, the infamous Stasi, takes charge of the case, especially when car tracks at the scene suggest that an official vehicle might have been involved. Further evidence suggests that this murder scene is not at all as it first appeared. As Jäger’s icey grip on the case tightens, Müller is left in such a precarious position that, in order to help find justice for the murdered girl, little more than a child, she must endanger far more than her career.

This is a cold, cold world into which we are immersed. It’s a bitterly chilly winter but the ice goes deeper. Karin’s marriage is in trouble, not helped by her attraction to her deputy, a charmer if ever there was one, but whereas Karin works for the authorities and believes in the ideology of her country, her husband does not. In fact, he’s had reason to hate it. He’s not shared any of this with his wife, just as she has carried on independently with her own life, but Karin has need to relearn her relationship with him, to get to know him again, the man he has become once the state had worked its harm.

The story alternates between two stories – Karin’s investigation (as well as her relationship with her husband) and the first-hand account of Irma, a teenage girl trapped in a reform school in an isolated and especially cold part of East Germany. Chillingly, the building was once a holiday complex built by Hitler. Irma’s story presents a further harrowing side to the dystopian nightmare of the DDR and adds an urgency to Karin’s investigations as the two narratives wind their way together.

Stasi Child is a deeply atmospheric and haunting read. The oppression of the state lies heavily over the characters and over the whole novel. With no doubt at all, this is such a fascinating time and there is an undeniable thrill in reading about the Wall (otherwise known as the Anti-Fascist Barrier) and its checkpoints, with the lure of the West just metres away. I love Berlin and it’s a fabulous place to explore. This book made me want to head straight back to it. Stasi Child captures the mood of the time, place and ideology brilliantly. It also brings to the fore the sadness and melancholy – the drabness and despair – that some endured during these days. Until some of them could endure it no longer.

The mystery is such a good one and there is plenty of suspense and tension as events unfold. But this is mixed with a fair amount of tragedy, making it a thoughtful read as well as a gripping one. The characters of Karin, Irma and Karin’s husband are especially well drawn. It’s hard not to suffer with them, or worry for them, and that makes some sections of the novel painful, brutal, but all the more rewarding.

I love a novel that evokes so well a lost time and place, especially when mixing it up with an intriguing plot and strong characters. Perfect, really. The fact that Stasi Child is a debut novel makes it all the more remarkable. I really hope Karin Müller returns, and in the not too distant future.

For Reasons Unknown by Michael Wood

For Reasons Unknown | Michael Wood | 2015 | Killer Reads | 244p | Review copy | Buy the book

For Reasons Unknown by Michael WoodTwenty years ago Miranda and Stefan Harkness were brutally slaughtered in their Sheffield home while getting ready to go out to a local concert. Their eleven-year-old son Jonathan was the only witness but the shock rendered him mute. Many months were to pass before he spoke a word. No statement was ever taken from Jonathan and the murderer was never identified. The murder has become a curiosity, the subject of a bestselling book and an embarrassment to the local police force. Finally, after two decades, the house is about to be demolished, stirring up the interest of the public and media alike. It’s the perfect time for the police to reopen the case and they have just the detective to head up the investigation. DCI Matilda Darke has returned to work after nine months’ enforced absence caused by traumas in both her professional and private lives. She thinks she’s ready to come back. Her bosses aren’t so sure. A cold case will be the final test to see if Matilda is fit to serve.

But this is a cold case that is about to heat up. A man is found beaten to death and it’s not long before a connection is made to the Harkness case. Could it really be possible that the killer is back after such a long time? The demolition of the Harkness home has stirred up a whole can of worms. Whether Matilda Darke is up to dealing with it is another matter entirely. Meanwhile, we have Jonathan Harkness, now grown, spending his evenings hiding from the world, immersed in books, hardly any distance at all from the house where his life fell apart.

For Reasons Unknown is an impressive debut novel. While never letting the pace drop, the novel combines a fascinating mystery with the depiction of two very different but equally damaged personalities. The narrative moves between Matilda and Jonathan, allowing us into both their worlds, with Jonathan’s dependence on reading and isolation, and Matilda’s increasing reliance on alcohol and, whether she likes it or not, therapy. Both of these characters are intriguing. Neither is especially likeable – how could they be? They’re trying to keep their distance – but there are some especially effective moments: when Jonathan thinks that he may be able to allow himself to have a friend at last and when Matilda works her way through a panic attack by reciting the names of England’s Prime Ministers. Matilda’s struggle to return to be herself is a powerful and poignant theme and it’s not long before we’re egging her on.

But this is a character-rich novel. Aside from Matilda and Jonathan, my imagination was caught by Acting DCI Hales, a man with so much to prove, not least to himself. He spirals out of control, clearly deeply unhappy, and I thought this particularly well done.

The strong characterisation of For Reasons Unknown means that the murder mystery has quite a job to do to equal it. Happily, it succeeds. There was a relatively minor character who irritated me a little – the eccentric woman who lives in the flat above Jonathan – but otherwise I found myself completely caught up in the plot, finding it satisfyingly twisty and gripping from the start. Michael Wood certainly kept a step or two ahead of me the entire journey. For Reasons Unknown is a short, fast read and I found it an enjoyable one. It’s always a pleasure to read a strong debut and discover a new author. For Reasons Unknown leaves me in no doubt that there are exciting times ahead for Michael Wood and his readers.

The Prisoner’s Gold by Chris Kuzneski

The Prisoner’s Gold | Chris Kuzneski | 2015 | Headline | 371p | Review copy | Buy the book

Prisoner's Gold by Chris KuzneskiThe hunters are back. Now all wealthy in their own right, it’s more than money that holds Jack Cobb’s tight team together as they embark on their third treasure hunt – and this time they will head East.

At the end of the 13th century a Venetian merchant was held prisoner by the Genoese in Italy. While a captive, he entertained another prisoner with tales of his adventures ‘to the far edges of Tartary’ or China. The other prisoner managed to write down his friend’s memories, hoping at some time that he, too, might tread in the footsteps of this extraordinary merchant and adventurer, Marco Polo.

Jean-Marc Papineau, the man holding the purse strings who hands down the missions to the hunters, believes that this account, and other manuscripts hidden away securely (supposedly) in museums and other sites across Europe and the East, may well hold the key to one of the great lost treasures of the history – the mythical gold hoard of Marco Polo.

Jack Cobb (soldier and technician), Josh McNutt (sniper), Sarah Ellis (thief and athlete), Hector Garcia (hacker), and Maggie (historian and linguist) immediately set off to find – and liberate – the other sources and, despite their promise to Jean-Marc to fly under radar, manage to spark off several international incidents along the way as they follow the clues to China. Unfortunately, they soon attract the attention of Feng He, the leader of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, a secret organsiation that has fought against western influence in China for centuries. Matters aren’t helped by Cobb’s suspicion that Jean-Marc is hiding something from them – while Jean-Marc finances them, who finances Jean-Marc? Of course, the memories of their previous mission are raw and can’t fail to affect the team’s mood. The only thing that they can rely on is each other.

The Prisoner’s Gold is the third novel in the Hunters series. It’s a fully stand alone adventure but there is a bigger picture that you’ll only get if you read the novels in sequence. The last novel, The Forbidden Tomb, in particular, had dire consequences for the team. If you don’t want to know what those are then it would be best to read The Forbidden Tomb first.

The mood in The Prisoner’s Gold returns us a little to the more carefree adventurous spirit of the first book in the series, The Hunters. Likewise, the plot and mystery of The Prisoner’s Gold reaches the quality of The Hunters. The Forbidden Tomb was a different experience altogether – at times very upsetting, it focused on the team rather than the mystery and events proved that they are not immortal, however skilled and intrepid they might be. In that novel we had the first glimpse of something happening beyond the team of which they had yet to become aware. This is built on in The Prisoner’s Gold and promises much for future novels. It’s good to see an action thriller series evolving and The Hunters series definitely seems to be doing just that.

There is a definite early Clive Cussler/Dirk Pitt feel to this series – Kuzneski even has the characters mention him at some point; something we’re used to in the Pitt novels. The characters of the team are probably what you’d expect from this kind of comparison with Cobb and McNutt doing their best to remind me of Dirk Pitt and Al Giordino. It is still relatively early days for the Hunter series and there is much to learn about Cobb, a character I’m thoroughly enjoying, but McNutt continues to be an irritation, crossing the line on a few occasions into offensiveness (thumping a corpse in the face because it falls on him in a suggestive manner was a particular low point). But with the exception of McNutt, I enjoy the team dynamics and look forward to discovering more about them. I still live in hope that McNutt will calm down…

The Hunters is such a good book and I was so pleased to find an adventure in The Prisoner’s Gold that is every bit as entertaining and exciting. Every time I put The Prisoner’s Gold down, I was looking forward to getting back to it. It’s such fun to read. There aren’t many thriller series at all that I will avidly read as soon as each comes out (Scott Mariani’s Ben Hope, James Rollins’ Sigma and Andy McDermott’s Nina and Eddie thrillers are the ones that spring to mind) but the Hunters series has now joined their ranks. I can’t wait to see what the hunters get up to next.

Other reviews and features
The Hunters
The Forbidden Tomb (Hunters 2)
Blog Tour – Top Five Historic Sites by Chris Kuzneski, author of The Forbidden Tomb