Robert Harris rose to prominence on the strength of several World War II historical novels, offering unique twists on what did happen – and what might have. Three years ago, though, the British author left the Nazis for Nero. That is, ancient Rome. After an initial foray ("Pompeii"), Harris returns with "Imperium," the first installment in a planned trilogy detailing the exploits of Cicero. The great Roman orator, lawyer, and politico comes to life in the suddenly rediscovered papers of Tiro, a satisfying riff on the real-life lost account of Cicero's dazzling career. Like the rest of the "Imperium" cast, the character of Tiro – based on his actual counterpart, who served as Cicero's secretary and slave for 36 years – conveys vivid, accurate depictions of Roman political intrigue through the use of historical research.
Indeed, even as venerable historical figures (Julius Caesar, Cato) traipse across the stage, Tiro commands attention as a sage narrator and observer. Of his master's political ascent, Tiro writes, "Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them." Cicero's rise included ample setbacks, offset by a Clintonian blend of deft oratory and dogged determination. If Harris sustains his narrative momentum, this trilogy seems sure to garner him a crown as Lord of the Laurel. Grade: A