Thursday, May 6, 2010

SPQR and The Sweet Spot of Historical Fiction

Roman era fiction is the special needs child of the historical fiction world. As Steve Donoghue so aptly explained in his literary review of the genre entitled Supping with Glaucus: A Tour of Roman Historical Fiction:

The stakes are slightly different when it comes to fiction set in ancient Rome, since so many of its readers have been encouraged by Rome’s very ubiquity to consider themselves homemade experts...authors of such fiction can be keenly aware of this, which is why so many of them over-load their books with carefully-researched facts. You’ll never read a Regency romance that has footnotes, but you can hardly read three Roman historical novels in a row without finding them, often massed in great ant-armies as though documentation were a novelist’s first duty – or proof against graver defects.

The novelist's first duty is to write a fantastic story. The historical novelist has to do that and educate at the same time. But there must be a sweet spot between commercial appeal and the inclusion of historical trivia.

When it comes to Roman era fiction, nobody does it better than John Maddox Roberts. He isn't the only author writing ancient Roman detective stories--but he's probably the best. I say this not to denigrate the fantastic books of Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, but to praise Roberts for finding that elusive sweet spot.

Books in the long-running SPQR series all have a few things in common. They're all so short, funny, and heart-warming that you don't even notice how much you're learning about the Late Republic. Sure, these books are meticulously researched and there's a glossary of Latin terms in the back, but you won't find any footnotes and explanations about history shine forth from a brilliant narrative voice.

Our protagonist, Decius Metellus, is a fun character who is at once quintessentially Roman and utterly relatable to the modern reader. Every time you open up an SPQR book, it's like visiting with an old friend. You don't want to finish, because you know it will be another year before you'll get to visit with Decius again. And that--that compelling sense of character--is something that the novelist can capture in a way that the historian cannot.

It may be the secret to the sweet spot. What do you think?


Marg said...

I have read a few mysteries set in Rome but haven't read any of this series. Sounds like I am missing out.

Stephanie Dray said...

Marg, I highly recommend it. It's a lot of fun. After you get about four books in, you'll never be able to hear the phrase, "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion" without bursting into uproarious laughter!

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