Book Review: The King’s Gambit (SPQR #1), by John Maddox Roberts

I’ve long had Maddox Roberts’ SPQR series on my TBR list (ever since I started reading Roman whodunits — Lindsey Davis, Steven Saylor, et al), but it took some time to get to this series.

What to Expect

A political mystery set in 70 BCE, as a young official is looking into the murders of nobodies and slowly unravelling the machinations and conspiracies of those holding the highest power. The story is told as a first-person detective, common to the whodunit genre, though written as memoirs of an old man about his younger days.

Expect the top names of the period, from Cicero winning his first important court case and Caesar entering his quaestorship, Lucullus fighting Mithridates in the east, and Crassus and Pompey in their first consulship. Politics, perfidy, and pirates abound.

What I liked

As a connoisseur of whodunits and the period, I liked that Roberts took a non-standard association, with Decius in league with Milo and against Clodius Pulcher. (In honesty, both were gang leaders and likely charismatic yet nasty characters at the same time; it’s usually that Milo is portrayed as the baser of the two, with Pulcher as the more flamboyantly charming). It is certainly interesting to see a story told from that perspective, as the optimates and their circle often get vilified in fiction along with the adoration of Caesar and the populares.

What to be aware of

There were a few choices by Maddox Robberts that left me puzzled. While using the name ‘Decius’ – a name that didn’t exist in ancient Rome – can be taken as a nod to how the character is fictional and inserted into events, some other historical inaccuracies are less so. For example, the vigiles – who report to Decius – were established by Augustus in 6 CE (at 70 BCE, firefighting was firmly in the hands of individuals – eg this is how Crassus made his fortunes).

One also has to wonder at how old Decius was when writing his memoirs – if he was a military tribune during the revolt of Sertorius and yet lived to know Germanicus in his glory, we would have been well over 105.

Lastly, Decius himself occasionally comes across as a bit pompous. While his heart’s in the right place and he’s relentlessly pursuing justice for everyone, he’s a somewhat harder person to like than the easy-going Marcus Corvinus (David Wishart) or the hard-bitten Falco (Lindsey Davis).

Felix’s Review

Felix was less fussed than me about the added bureaucracy – it’s part of what kept his Roman-esque republic more stable. And though he admires Decius’ commitment to solving the murders, no matter how low-born the victim, he said that getting the stick out of his butt would improve the story no end. The mystery aspect in itself and its resolution left him wanting.

Summary

It’s a classic Roman-Republic detective, with a lot of potential for a first work in a series (though Maddox Roberts has been writing SFF / Spec-Fic for about a decade when this was published). I will be continuing with the series, expecting growth and novel outlooks.


Enjoying the reviews, but wondering who the heck is that Felix fellow? Glad you asked! He’s the protagonist of the Togas, Daggers, and Magic series, an historical-fantasy blend of a paranormal detective on the background of ancient Rome. Come meet him on the free short stories or full novels!

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