Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The King’s Gambit by John Maddox Roberts

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.00 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.84 / 5.00

Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is expected to rise through the ranks of Roman political office, just like his father. He subjected himself to the minimum military service and received an ugly scar on his chin from a Spanish spear for his pains. Now he is the commander of the local vigiles, responsible for fire fighting and cleaning up after the rampant law breaking in his district, the Subura, an area stuffed to bursting point with brothels and tall apartment blocks just waiting to collapse. Even worse: he has to get up before dawn every day to hear his men’s report of the nighttime unpleasantness before receiving his clients and then parading across town to pay his respects to his father. He just hopes that as he gets more important he will be allowed to have breakfast in bed and stay there until a reasonable hour.

This particular morning, a pair of seemingly unrelated murders and a case of arson should be easily solved, but someone higher up the chain of command wants Decius to avoid investigating the whole sorry mess. This makes him suspicious, as do the connections he finds between these events and some of the most distinguished men in the Republic. Then there are the sudden and unexpected attentions of the beautiful Claudia, a woman with many ‘interesting’ friends and some frankly scandalous attitudes. When Decius is knocked unconscious so that someone can steal a seemingly unimportant token in the shape of a camel’s head, he becomes determined to uncover the truth.

Unlike Marcus Didius Falco, the hero of Lindsey Davis’ series, the leading character of the SPQR series is from a wealthy and influential family. Although the Metelli are not one of the founding, Patrician, families, they have almost as much power in Rome. At this time, about 70 BCE, the Republic is plagued by the political aspirations of such characters as Pompey the Great and Crassus, reputedly the wealthiest man in the whole Roman world. Such famous imperialists as Catilina and Julius Caesar are junior officials with great ambitions and the famous orator Cicero has just burst upon the scene. Against this background of famous names we follow a much more obscure man in his pursuit of the truth, even though it endangers both his own life and his family’s reputation.

However, this book does not present a rarified view of the Roman Republic at this time. It is essentially the same stinking cesspit as we see through Falco’s eyes, although we do get to see a little more decadence and luxury. In some ways, the revelations about the famous names and important people makes the world seem even shabbier, because we expect so much more from these historical figures. Some do seem to live up to our perception of them, such as Cicero, but the others are disappointingly normal, scrabbling about for personal prestige, wealth or power. This is certainly not a book to read if you want to be overawed by the majesty that was Rome.

In a similar way to Falco, Decius is not your typical hero. He hates getting up whilst it is still dark and resents the many things that he has to do because they are expected or simply the ‘done thing’. After spending a few days following his rounds of client calls and maintaining political relationships, it is easy to see why he would be bored witless. This perhaps explains why he is so interested in investigating the deaths in his area, although he seems to possess a very proper sense of Roman justice that motivates his efforts to uncover who has killed some of ‘his’ people. He is burdened by the history of his family and also by its sheer numbers, although he does benefit from some rather useful connections because of it as well. His relationship with his father is particularly well drawn and is a constant point of frustration and humor for our hero.

Whilst Decius has no partner to help him in his investigations, he does make use of a very interesting character that acts a little like a medical examiner. Asklepiodes is a Greek physician who has made it his life’s work to catalogue the wounds created by every weapon he can find. In order to study a wide variety he has travelled across the Republic to work in a wide range of gladiator schools. At the moment he is working for one in Rome and aids Decius in his interpretation of the various wounds found on the dead bodies. Whilst he does not wander into Quincy territory and is restricted to discussions of deathblows, he is a refreshingly modern character to encounter in this setting. He provides some vital clues that allow Decius to unravel the conflicting evidence that he sees without our hero seeming to be far too knowledgeable about foreign fighting techniques.

Another excellent supporting character is Milo, a young man who used to be a professional oarsman and who now works for one of the biggest gangs in the city. This highly competent ‘heavy’ is a rather unusual character, who Decius is drawn to because of his eternal optimism and clear-headedness. He is certainly intriguing, especially as I know that he is destined for a rather hectic political career in the years after the book ends. It will be very interesting to see how his character progresses in the later titles of the series.

The plot clips along at a decent pace and leaves very little down time for description and scene setting, and yet the atmosphere of the city and time are conveyed very well. We are given quite a bit of detail about many aspects of Roman life at the time, but they do not feel too much like information dumps. There is a Glossary at the back to further explain some terms, but the feel is of Decius relating his life history to someone unfamiliar with Rome. He provides enough detail to allow understanding, but does not let the world building slow the story. Even so, the author conveys a great deal about the lives of low-ranking Roman officials, freedmen and slaves. He also makes the patron-client relationship accessible to a reader who has never even heard of this arrangement.   

I guess that my only criticism of the title would be that the sexual encounter that Decius shares with Claudia is so obviously a trap that I wanted to slap the lad around the face. However, I can understand that a young man might not think too much about why a beautiful woman suddenly wants to have rampant sex with him. He certainly suffers for his lack of caution and it does provide him with more clues to solving the puzzle, but it did feel a little out of place to me.

With that caveat, I would recommend this title, and series, to anyone who enjoys a good mystery story, especially if political intrigue is of interest. The Roman setting is excellent and will leave you with a better understanding of the daily life of the city at this turbulent time.


  1. I read several books in this series years ago and really enjoyed it. I also have had the pleasure of meeting the author twice now and hearing him talk at Bubonicon. You're review makes me want to revisit the series.

    1. I know that he wrote several Conan books and others in the Fantasy genre, so this series seems a little out of place for him, but they are very good and Decius is a pleasantly imperfect hero.