The King’s Gambit by John Maddox Roberts – Book Review

The King's Gambit by John Maddox Roberts – Book cover

In the introductory volume of John Maddox Roberts’ historical crime series, now consisting of more than 10 volumes, Decius, a low-ranking Roman official, begins an investigation into the murder of a freed slave. The setting is during the crisis of the Roman Republic in 70 B.C. And guess who Decius encounters right away in the first chapter? Bravo, you guessed it: none other than the up-and-coming Gaius Julius Caesar. Then, of course, other well-known figures of the era appear one after the other, from Pompey the Great to Cicero, and up to the scamp Publius Clodius Pulcher.

Although “The King’s Gambit” is theoretically a crime novel, as it possesses many of its characteristics (coroner, informant, tough sidekick), it feels more like you’re reading a historical novel. The thin thread of the investigation is not very exciting or original (it occasionally uses well-known historical facts clumsily to advance the plot, hello, pirates), and most of the time, it gets overshadowed by discussions of current political and historical conditions. This is partly because young Decius becomes OBSESSED with the idea that he has stumbled into a seditious conspiracy. And that everyone is against him. What?!

The conspiracy accusation later bursts and degrades into a simple political maneuver. There you go! However, Decius doesn’t give up; he continues to pursue the case. No one understands why he is so enthusiastically involved in a miserable slave’s affair. No one. Not even you.

The first installment of John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR series mostly resembles the pilot episode of a detective TV series that hasn’t found its own voice yet, but it’s not terribly bad, and you hope it will find its way eventually.

What, however, can unequivocally be credited to the “The King’s Gambit’s” merit is the seemingly entirely authentic portrayal of the historical period. I abandoned the Gordianus series in a similar genre precisely because it lacked this authenticity. Unfortunately for it, I had just finished reading Colleen McCullough’s monumental Masters of Rome series, and it quickly fell short in comparison.

That’s not the case with this book. On the contrary, seamlessly integrated into the text, almost every other paragraph provides information that helps you understand the political and social conditions of the era more clearly or makes you feel like you are strolling alongside the eager beaver Decius on the narrow, cobblestone streets of Rome.

6.9/10 (69%)

The King’s Gambit (SPQR #1) by John Maddox Roberts
274 pages, Paperback
Published in 1990 by Minotaur Books

Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson – Book Review

Blood Will Follow by Snorri Kristjansson - Book Cover

King Olav Tryggvason decides to unite the whole of Norway in the holy name of Christ. Anyone unwilling to share his faith, he wishes to cleave in the head with a battle-axe. The threads converge beneath the walls of the city of Stenvik, where those who adhere to their well-established, low-hassle religion, resisting King Olav’s plans, also wish to strike him in the head with a battle-axe.

The first part of Snorri Kristjansson’s trilogy was quite alright, although it might have dampened your enthusiasm with too many indistinguishable characters, constant shifts in perspective, and a slightly clumsily starting plot. Fortunately, during the siege, the story became much more intense, although the incorporation of blood magic, reminiscent of fantasy, into a historically grounded novel might raise eyebrows.

However, the real problems arise in the second part “Blood Will Follow”. It’s as if every minor flaw so far is magnified. The relationships between the characters become erratic, and their actions contradict EVERYTHING. For instance, two deceased characters from the first part are revealed to be alive, only to die AGAIN a few pages later due to a lame plot twist. WTF? Characters who spent the first part engaged in continuous intrigues here embark on the MOST TRANSPARENT conspiracy in world history and, well, fail miserably. WTF?? A mediocre and clumsy schemer herbalist, not occupying a high rank in the hierarchy, starts puppeteering the previously strong-willed king on strings and takes over the direction of military operations. WTF???

And that’s just one thread. In the other, two characters wander the roads of Norway and get involved in mundane situations more and more boring. The negative climax here is probably when one of them feeds a damn dog for an ENTIRE PAGE.

If the uneasy feeling that “Blood Will Follow” has lost its historical book character has been lurking around you so far, now it kicks towards you full force with a steel-toed boot.

And then, listen, what do you say about these two characters actually dying at various points in the plot but somehow miraculously surviving? It’s suspicious that MAYBE figures from Scandinavian mythology are lurking around them. Could one of them be Odin himself? I dunno, but no god could make me read this amateurish nonsense until it’s revealed.

Swords of Good Men 7/10 (70%)
Blood Will Follow 4/10 (40%)

Blood Will Follow (The Valhalla Saga #2) by Snorri Kristjansson
308 pages, Hardcover
Published in 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books