Book Review: John Maddox Roberts’ King’s Gambit

Posted May 23, 2013 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: John Maddox Roberts’ King’s Gambit

King's Gambit

in Hardcover edition on August 24, 2001 and has 274 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads or Amazon.

First in the SPQR historical mystery series revolving around Decius Caecilius Metellus and his interest in snooping, LOL.

In 1991, The King’s Gambit was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

My Tak

Roberts is using a first-person narration, and it’s odd to hear him tell us what’s happening now AND of various characters’ futures at the same time. Useful, but odd. It does, however, contribute to my feeling of being hit over the head. As though I’m not bright enough to pick up on the clues.

That bit when Roberts introduces the forensics aspect of it with Asklepiodes and his wounds study helped that feeling along. Definitely an eye-rolling moment. The overt patriotism Decius proclaims is very admirable, but it has a juvenile feel to it. It doesn’t help that Decius stumbles over so many clues that should have had him questioning events and people much earlier in the story.

Roberts does spend a lot of time informing us of the history of wars and Roman politics; I’m assuming it’s to ensure we have a background against which we can follow along with the clues. I just wish it didn’t feel quite so much as if he were telling us. Decius’ consultation with Cicero, however, was very well done in providing us with background information but disguised as advice.

Like Steven Saylor in Roman Blood, Roberts also relays Roman customs of daily and religious life. There’s more of an emphasis in this one on the military service required of Roman men, and a tremendous importance on putting on the toga when paying calls or anytime you want to impress people. I’m also grateful for our current religious practices — I’d hate to be so beholden to omens and portents!

There’s a very useful explanation of the difference between plebeians and patricians. Hmm, Roberts has made me curious about Spartacus. All I know is about the movie and that he had been a slave. Now I want to know more.

“I’m learning street-level politics from Macro.”

“And you’re learning Senate-level politics from me,” I said.

“You’re right. And so far, it looks just like the street.”

It’s been an interesting blend of books I’ve been reading lately, and it’s set me to thinking about life before radio, television, and the Internet. When people had to entertain themselves. They learned to play instruments, memorize poems and plays, hold dances, perform in theatricals. As much as I love my TV and Internet, I do wish we had a bit more of the community involvement. Yes, and then my second thought, but don’t make me participate. Oh, brother, I’m such a hypocrite!

It’s obvious from the start that Decius isn’t expected to do more than sign off on the investigation. It’s also obvious that he’s a conservative thinker.

LOL, I did like how Sergius Paulus got around the matter of the disbursement of his estate and slaves!

I’m having a hard time warming up to this. I like the characters — they’re certainly colorful! — but there’s a feeling of detachment, a coldness to this. And I find I’m getting confused between Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa and Roberts’ SPQR. I like Saylor’s tale more — it’s warmer and pulls me in with the characters as opposed to viewing them — and I’ll likely read Saylor’s series first.

The Story

A fire at Paramedes’ warehouse and a series of murders creates a stir of interest around Metellus the Younger. And it soon becomes obvious that he’s expected to stamp this case closed.

The Characters

Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is serving as a commissioner for the Commission of Twenty-six and has discovered he has a flair for snooping. Burrus is an old soldier and part of Decius’ required entourage. Cato is one of his slaves, the janitor or doorkeeper.

Decius Caecilius Metellus the Elder, a.k.a., Cut-Nose, served under General Marius and is now an Urban Praetor; he’ll stand for Consul in two years. The Caecilii Metelli are a plebeian nobility with the only real negative that they are not qualified for certain priesthoods — young Decius sees this as a plus. Aunt Caecilia, the Vestal, was now the Virgo Maxima, the head of the college and of the Temple of the Vestals. The Metellis’ patron is Quintus Hortensius Hortalus (his character also appears in Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series).

Publius Claudis Pulcher is a young hothead and planning to change his patrician status and become a Clodius instead. Claudia is his much brighter sister with plans of her own. Chrysis is her maid. Prince Tigranes of Armenia is on the run from his father, King Tigranes the Elder.

Caius Julius Caesar seems to have shed his propensity for debauchery and debt to pursue a career in politics. On the side of the Populares, no less! He’s currently married to Cornelia, a daughter of Cinna. [Decius says that he is “the most brilliantly cold-blooded schemer”.] General Marcus Licinius Crassus is one of the richest and a Consul of Rome along with Pompey. And Roberts repeats the “rumors” of Crassus’ habit of being the first at a fire.

Sergius Paulus is a freedman, but one of the richest men in Rome. Pepi is the slave who sleeps across his bedroom door. Marcus Ager was another freeman who used to fight under the name of Sinistrus. Paramedes is an Asian Greek from Antioch, and the pirates’ representative in Rome. Zabbai is a silk merchant. Hasdrubal sells cloth in Ostia.

Macro is a gang boss with political connections, including being a client of Hortensius. Titus Annius Milo is a former rower who now works for Macro. I suspect he’ll be a regular in the cast. A good thing, if so, as I do like him.

General Lucius Licinius Lucullus is battling Mithridates, Rome’s most current enemy, and is under fire in Rome. Tribune Gnaeus Quintilius Carbo brings news of the war and Decius gives him warning.

Lucius Satilius runs the gladiator school, Ludus Satilius. Asklepiodes is the physician who has done a study of wounds.

The cautious Rutilius is Commissioner for the Trans-Tiber district; Optimius is Commissioner in charge of the Aventine, Palatine, and Caelian districts. Junius is the Senate freedman who acts as secretary. Quintus Curius is an “extraordinarily dissipated young Senator. Cicero is here as is Tiro, his secretary slave. Lucius Sergius Catilina.

The Forum had been a mass of temples, market stalls, fortune teller’s booths, speakers’ platforms, a place for men to idle, etc.

The Cover and Title

The cover is gorgeous with a man’s surprised face done in a Roman-style mosaic, blood pooling along his jawline and banded top and bottom with marble.

The title is a chess move and I’m not sure if it’s Roberts’ play on King’s Gambit.