Set in the early turbulent years of the Roman Empire, and seen through the eyes of three men, Warrior Prince tells the story of a love that will not be denied, of courage in the face of adversity, of political intrigue, betrayal and death. Against this backdrop of death and mayhem, Lucius and Callistus, two estranged lovers, meet at last, but can their love overcome the enormous odds they must face when it seems that every man – and the gods – are determined to tear them apart once more?
Review by Vashtan
I got this book for free from Erastes for the purpose of the review. If you do come knocking, please arrive in the morning, so you don’t interrupt the writing. And – may I take my bonsai? He’s been looking down, lately.
I must admit I’m torn on this. I Googled (and binged) reviews for “Warrior Prince” to help me form an opinion. It didn’t help. I have notes and thoughts and I’m still torn. I’ll likely remain torn on this. While this book didn’t work for me at all, I know there are many people who will enjoy this. So I will write a lot about how it didn’t work for me and why, and then rate it three stars, because it is exactly what it wants to be, and the misfortune is that I don’t like what it is.
This is the story of Lucius Tullius, a Capuan (not a Roman) middle-class youth who was one of the protagonists of “Slaves to Love”, the first part of this “Warrior Prince” is the sequel of that book. The first part of “Slaves to Love” develops the love story between Lucius Tullius and the Gallic noble Callistus, who is a gladiator, joins Spartacus’ rebellion, then returns home, leaving behind a heart-broken Lucius.
In “Warrior Prince”, Lucius hears stories that Callistus is fighting against the Romans in Gaul, and joins the army to be reunited with his lost love.
History first: so far, this seems fair enough; while I doubt very much that our “hero”, Lucius Tullius, could just join the Roman army a bit for a couple years and then just leave, and then re-enlist on a whim, that is something I’d need to check more closely. Roman soldiers served for a long, long time, and at least 6 years according to one source I have here. But it doesn’t matter, because Bowie is being very vague on the history anyway. It’s the Late Roman Republic (rather than the Roman Empire as the blurb claims – that happens later), and Capua, but there are very few in-depth details. The military service is just a backdrop, and shows us a Roman army that is staggeringly incompetent, undisciplined and so corrupt that only the vainglorious, stupid and self-absorbed rise to any kind of importance. Doesn’t really matter, this is what I call “history light.” It’s not blatantly wrong, but the feel isn’t quite right – there’s an absence of the “telling detail” or an insight into the depicted culture or time, and the small details are left out and nebulous, which often happens with writers who don’t care that much about the period to get the small stuff right.
I’ve read much, much worse, but it didn’t grip me.
The story is told in first person by the main characters (and a Roman officer called Flavius, who I found insignificant to the plot and unbelievable as an officer, a military man, a Roman citizen and a member of the social elite), who endlessly reflect on what has just happened, so this feels very repetitive, like the author wants to make sure we don’t get lost in the plot. The way these characters speak didn’t ring very authentic to me, nor what they say or how they frame it, but at least they are not totally modern characters.
The writing. To state up front, I’m a voracious reader. I love to read. It’s a bad sign if I keep checking how many pages I have to trawl through. In this case, that “oh dear, still X pages left” started from pretty much page 1.
Why? For my personal taste, the style is simply schmoopy. The emotions are over-the-top, the characters spend forever thinking about how much they love each other and how wonderful the other is, to which my mind responds with: “I get it, he’s great and you love him, can we please now get to the meat of the story? Please?” The characters seem to spend 50% of their time pining for each other:
Never would I forget that first moment when his lips met mine in a kiss that had set my senses reeling, and my body on fire with a passion that had never abated. The memory of the time we had spent together making love would live with me for all time, and diminish any other moment spent in another’s arms. Sometimes I would curse him for having given me a taste of a rapture I could never again experience. But then I would immerse myself in the memories of his smile, of his strength and of his sweetness of nature that had brought me from mere infatuation to a deep, abiding love of the man he truly was.
Belenus was brought to me, saddled and bridled, and as I swung myself up onto his back, I thought for the thousandth time of Lucius, and how he had looked astride the steed on the day I sent him back to his family. I hoped he had forgiven me for taking Belenus from him after our last night together. I urged Belenus forward, and the men gathered behind me to watch what they imagined would be a very short conference with the emissary that now cantered toward the camp. I knew him before he got near, and for a moment my heart stopped in my chest and my breath caught in my throat.
His name was torn from my lips as my eyes took in every part of his face and form. Despite the fact that he was wearing a Roman soldier’s uniform, I could tell he had not changed one whit in the years that had passed since our last all-too-brief meeting. As he drew abreast of me, I could see those same shining brown eyes now fixed upon mine, and the same sweet smile I remembered each time he looked at me.
Oh, Lucius, what have you done? Why are you here on this field that will soon be covered in blood, and the bodies of men? But of course, I knew the reasons, and as he gazed at me with an expression of longing and love, I felt my loins burn with lust, and the need to crush him in my arms and cover his face and body with my lips.
I know this kind of writing works for some, but I find it grating and much prefer realistically depicted, believable emotion. The sex scenes and writing seemed quite repetitive to me, too. I was tempted to start a drinking game – one shot of vodka for every time an embrace is described with the words “I was a willing prisoner in his arms” or a variation of that. I would easily have got through three bottles before the book was up. I’m totally okay with having only a couple sex scene, as long as those are smoking hot and mean something. Here, they are just “proof of how much they love each other” and the sexual spark hits the moment gay or gay-inclined men look at each other – no more meaning or relevance than that.
The characters. Lucius Tullius is 26 years old and has the emotional maturity of a 14 year old girl. There is a lot of blushing and tears in this book, many, many “I love you!”s and Lucius to me comes across not as a full-grown man, but a child, a push-over, whose main aim is to have sex with the love of his life, the barbarian prince Calllistus. It’s good for him he also has the famous self-lubricating anus – the sex scene sometimes involve a little spit or rimming beforehand, but there are several instances in the book where Lucius takes it like a girl, without preparation. Little Lucius has no mettle whatsoever, or at least I just don’t believe he does. When he thinks he’s cunning, he really is not. If the author tells us he’s tough, he really isn’t (or maybe show me some basic training/army life in the late Republican army), and I never liked him. I had no chance to. He never really struggled, and it takes more than a lot of luck and a lot of whining for me to feel with a character. Every time Lucius gets in a tight spot, he’s rescued by happy coincidence, which will not only solve all his problems, but often reward him in some way, too. This rather reads like the story of a pampered pet that ends up in a spot of bother and then is rescued by some deus ex machina with no credit to his own mettle.
In short, I really couldn’t get into the character. I disbelieved him going through army life, and to me, he wasn’t a believable male character of the time. I think I may have winced when he told us he treats his slaves like “friends” and “servants”, he disagrees with slavery, and treats his slaves like confidantes (in “Slaves to Love”, he just lets one of his own slaves join the forces of Spartacus and wishes him luck on the way).
That kind of anachronistic thinking stretches to other characters. We have Flavius, a Roman character so blown away by Callistus’ charisma that he would rather serve him than Rome. O-kay.
Callistus, the Gaul, is the cliché of the “noble savage”. He’s more honourable, humane, and everything else than any Roman character in the book. He’s just so great that everybody respects and loves and follows him, even the few Romans who aren’t simply evil and incompetent. Never mind he’s shagging an enemy who could be a spy. Never mind that, according to what I’ve read, Germanic tribes killed homos. Here, nobody seems to care much (at least, Callistus is shagging his little Lucius behind closed doors/inside his tent).
The sex: lots of “willing prisoners”, lots of quick shags that did nothing to me – they were too purple, for once, too over-the-top, with self-lubricating anuses, people crying out each other’s names and “I love you!” all the time, and miraculous recovery times (well, I guess those Gauls are just *better* at recovering).
Now, the good bits. It’s well-edited, and the cover is ok. It has a discernible plot, so you can read this without wondering what the hell you’re doing. The history in broad strokes is enough to make this “history light”. It is a fluffy romance, written like a fluffy romance, with over-the-top emotions, a manly man, and a little boy (who’s legal age for sex), and if you like that kind of dynamics, you can’t go wrong here.
To sum up: History-light costume piece in the sentimental romance tradition narrated from a number of first-person POVs, with plenty of sex, over-the-top emotions, much pining, a hard-warrior-and-pliant-eager-boy dynamic and characters that often feel anachronistic but few glaring errors. Many settings and scenes are very vague (like Roman army life and warfare); the good people are very good, the bad people are very bad. I could see the plot twists come for a mile or two, but it is an art form to give the reader exactly what they are expecting, and many readers like that.
It didn’t work for me and I was glad it was over, but I know there are people out there who will enjoy this kind of book, so I rate it with three stars. It’s solidly made for what it wants to be.
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Filed under: Ancient Rome, Fiction, J P Bowie, Reviews, three stars | 8 Comments »