The Second Sleep (2019): Robert Harris

★★★½

Robert Harris’s new novel opens on a bleak evening in 1468, as a young priest makes his way wearily towards the village of Addicott St George. The parish parson, Father Thomas Lacy, has recently died and Christopher Fairfax has been sent by the Bishop of Exeter to oversee the burial. It’s supposed to be a quick job but, when Fairfax arrives, he begins to hear rumours of murder that he feels bound to investigate. Even worse, he makes shocking discoveries in Father Lacy’s study: the former priest was dabbling in dangerous heresies, which seem to have had some bearing on his mysterious death. And that, my friends, is all I feel able to say before the cut. I will add that I found this an engaging, amusing and unexpectedly engrossing novel, and that if you’ve enjoyed Harris’s earlier works you would do well to give this a go. But The Second Sleep is a novel best approached in complete innocence. If you haven’t yet read it, but think you might like to, I urge you to stop right here. Don’t read past the cut, where there will be spoilers. Come back when you’re done and, while you’re reading, pay attention. Those with sharp eyes will realise pretty swiftly that all is not quite as it seems.

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Imperium (2006): Robert Harris

★★★★½

Cicero: Book I

This book has roosted patiently on my shelf for some time and I’m not quite sure why it’s taken me so long to get round to it. Perhaps I just couldn’t stomach yet another version of the fall of the Roman republic? Or perhaps, shamefully, I felt that a novel about the life of Marcus Tullius Cicero would be rather dry? I was wrong, of course. I was utterly, completely wrong and am glad to be so. Harris’s novel has all the drama of a modern political thriller, underpinned by conscientious faithfulness to place, time and character. It’s superbly paced. Seen through the eyes of Cicero’s devoted secretary Tiro, this is the story of a brilliant man, a tireless, probing and ruthless lawyer, whose desire for rank brings him into the orbit of the most powerful – and infamous – men in Rome. It is a mixed blessing. With the help of such men, Cicero can rise to the heights he has always dreamed about. But at what cost?

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Pompeii: Robert Harris

★★★½

Attilius is an aquarius: a specialist engineer who constructs and maintains the great aqueducts that feed the Roman Empire. His first significant posting is to Misenum, the great naval base at the tip of the Bay of Naples and the terminus of the immense aqueduct, the Aqua Augusta, which waters the resorts and towns around the bay. Attilius’ predecessor, the aquarius Exomnius, has vanished in mysterious circumstances; but nobody admits to knowing where he’s gone. And anyway Attilius has more pressing matters on his hands: his gang of recalcitrant workmen don’t take him seriously; his foreman Corax does all he can to undermine his authority; and the waters of the Aqua Augusta have begun to fail.

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