Rome, 63 BC. In a city on the brink of acquiring a vast empire, seven men are struggling for power. Cicero is consul, Caesar his ruthless young rival, Pompey the republic's greatest general, Crassus its richest man, Cato a political fanatic, Catilina a psychopath, Clodius an ambitious playboy.
The stories of these real historical figures - their alliances and betrayals, their cruelties and seductions, their brilliance and their crimes - are all interleaved to form this epic novel. Its narrator is Tiro, a slave who serves as confidential secretary to the wily, humane, complex Cicero. He knows all his master's secrets - a dangerous position to be in.
From the discovery of a child's mutilated body, through judicial execution and a scandalous trial, to the brutal unleashing of the Roman mob, Lustrum is a study in the timeless enticements and horrors of power.
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The rise of Robert Harris as one of the UK's premier novelists has been something of a phenomenon. His breakthrough book was, of course, Fatherland, and even though the premise (Germany had won the Second World War and occupied Britain) was not original, the treatment was astonishingly assured. From that date onwards, a series of remarkable books flowed from his metaphorical pen: Archangel, Enigma and the much-acclaimed Ghost. But if one element has distinguished Harris’s career, it is his wholly admirable refusal to be typecast with regard to genre. The thriller may be his natural home, but he has shown an immense skill at dealing with historical subjects and the past: one of his most impressive novels was the massive and ambitious Pompeii (recently on the point of being filmed by Roman Polanski before his own past came back to haunt him).
And here's Lustrum, another historical novel that cannily utilises elements of the thriller but attempts something far more challenging than most proponents of that genre. Harris’s continuing theme is the battle for power, and this Rome-set narrative deals with the years around 63BC when Cicero was Consul of Rome, building to the unstoppable accession to power of the canny and ruthless Caesar. Rome, in the process of consolidating its massive empire, resounds to the sounds of a no-holds-barred struggle for influence. The protagonists here are the canny consul Cicero, the equally Machiavellian Caesar, the Republic's eminent general Pompey and the hyper-rich Crassus. These real historical figures (and others, including the psychopathic Catilina) are stirred into a very heady brew by Robert Harris, beginning when the body of a child, grotesquely mutilated, is discovered. The trial and execution that follows plunges the city of Rome into a ferment as destabilising as anything it has faced.
This is Robert Harris at his considerable best, evoking the ancient past with a vividness that few of his contemporaries can muster. But apart from the richly detailed historical pageant on offer in Lustrum, the real coup of the book lies in the creation of the character of Cicero: wonderfully realised, with all the contradictions and charm of his nature acting as the perfect fulcrum for this sprawling but utterly persuasive narrative. --Barry ForshawReview:
"Harris is the master. With Lustrum, [he] has surpassed himself. It is one of the most exciting thrillers I have ever read" (Peter Jones Evening Standard)
"Harris communicates such a strong sense of imperial Rome - the book is awesomely well-informed about the minutiae of everyday life" ( Guardian)
"Thoroughly engaging ... The allure of power and the perils that attend it have seldom been so brilliantly anatomised in a thriller" ( Sunday Times)
"Harris never makes his comparisons between Rome and modern Britain explicit, but they are certainly there. And that's the principal charm of his ancient thrillers - their up-to-dateness" ( Sunday Telegraph)
"Magnificent ... Better than Robert Graves's Claudius novels" (Allan Massie Standpoint)
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