In third century Rome, being a freedman doesn’t exempt you from punishment, even when you’ve done nothing wrong. This is the story of a gladiator granted his freedom by an Emperor, only to be caught up in the web of a treacherous patrician whose wife has been murdered. He abducts the gladiator and tortures him – only to discover taht some men will not talk, whether they know the answer or not. Powerful forces are at work. But can one strong man hold out long enought for the good to put their plan into action?
Review by Vashtan
Disclosure first: Erastes received the book from the author and passed it to Vashtan solely for the purpose of this review.
To be frank, I struggle putting into words what I feel about this book. It’s usually a bad sign if I need longer than a week for a slim book.(145 pages) This took almost three. After reading the first third of it, I just didn’t want to go back. I made a valiant effort to finish it a week ago, and just finished the last third. I do believe that you cannot review a book you haven’t actually finished, so I read everything to the last page.
I may revise the policy.
If a writer fails over the first 50 pages in a 150-page book, it’s highly unlikely they turn the ship around in the last 100 pages. And the longer the pain drags on, the less charitable the review. Sometimes, reviewers do feel angry after reading a bad book, it’s the nature of the world.
This is the story of the gladiator Philokrates and the physician Artimos. Both men meet after death in the Elysian Fields, and tell us their story. I think. Because there wasn’t really much story. After the gladiator gets freed by the Emperor after the games, and falls in love with his physician who looks after the gladiators, they get into trouble with a corrupt trader who wants to frame the gladiator’s co-gladiator for murder of his wife, and has the gladiator and the physician abducted and tortured.
The plot then kinda meanders a little, but gets resolved off-camera. The troublemaker dies, our couple receive gifts, go to parties, and that’s the end of it. I must admit I found the story very dull – there’s just no arch to it, as if the writer wasn’t interested much in the story her/himself. What the author was interested in are a couple of graphic scenes where muscular men get crucified, tied up, beaten and tortured, and the rest of the “novel” only serves as backdrop to provide excuses for those scenes. So this is very much about the kink and not at all about the story or the characters. Which begs the question why write a novel at all rather than a number of short stories with a graphic torture scene?
Another thing: The Nazca Plains Corporation seems to take the editing part of the publishing business quite lightly. This is the second book by them I’ve read that is sloppily edited, and they don’t seem to have a standard formatting, either. This book’s paragraphs are all disconnected by blank lines, something I‘m more used to seeing in ebooks rather than print books. The editing overall didn’t look at style, either. I found the style bloated, monotonous and dull – a good editor with some good cutting could have saved the book, possibly. If an editor had found all the weird shifts in point-of-view, language misuse, typos, the gushing about “masculine beauty” and assorted purple prose (I get it, the author doesn’t have to repeat it over and over and over again), fixed the sloppily-structured so-called “plot”, the characters’ motivation…. This might have turned out readable.
Then there’s the cover – while not horrendous and certainly not a Poser cover, it still looks cheap and tacky. Not a cover I’d want to be seen with out on the street.
Research. The author made some attempt to research. From the very setup of this book, it would have been a tough book to write. Very tough, in fact. We’re dealing with two first person narrators, one a learned man and one a rough gladiator. The author makes some attempt to have one speak more educated and more poetically, whereas the gladiator is more vulgar. They still ‘sound’ the same, like the same person tried very hard to change his voice a little. Getting a first person voice of a historical character right is a massive challenge – you try and mimic how people spoke, and what they would have said how. Smith didn’t. After a few attempts to do that, we get words like “okay”, and anachronisms galore.
Now, what happens. While revelling in getting people horrendously injured (the gladiator gets his Achilles tendon severed and his ankle pretty much turned into mush during a torture scene), Smith fixes these people quite quickly, too. Apparently, a physician in 3rd century Rome could sew an Achilles tendon back together, and operate a massively fractured ankle bone, put it into plaster, and the gladiator is fine after a few days or a week. There are people that survive having spikes driven through the abdominal cavity, and in general, this physician is a hundred times better than any Roman physician that I read about.
While there is some research, it falls flat when we have Romans use mahogany (they must have sneakily crossed the Atlantic to get the wood from South and Central America), and the way that gladiatorial games are portrayed doesn’t hold up. Another thing: the characters count time in minutes (maybe they invented a wrist-watch, or the sun dials were way more precise than I though). We have minor characters called Tacitus and Ovid (Ovid isn’t the author of “The Metamorphoses” as you might have thought, but “The Annihilator”, another gladiator), and Tacitus the historian would probably turn in his urn if he knew what his namesake is up to in this book.
I struggle finding a passage that sums up this book. Maybe you want one of the torture scenes?
Once again our Roman guards, a new pair coming on duty for the evening shift, seized Philo and hung him by his wrists onto the overhead spike. One stood behind Philo, clamping his hands onto Philo’s thighs; the other stood in front, pounding him with fists. “No bone,” said the one from behind, and the punches were concentrated on his belly. Philo’s hard and stretched muscle was pounded with meaty fists from below his sternum to above his pelvis, and with no way to draw up his legs or move forward, back or side to side, Philo took these punches with nothing but muscle for defense.
He wanted to puke, but there was nothing inside his belly to puke. All he could do was tighten himself, groan upon impact, grunt upon impact, and stare past the Roman guard throwing punches into him. Guard’s name? Drusus Macarius, and if ever a man could have lived his previous life as a bull and bring with him in this life these same physical traits as a human, that would be Drusus. With broad and compact chest, bulging and rounded shoulders supporting massive arms carved from central limbs of a mighty oak tree, Drusus’s thick-skinned, bony-knuckled fists penetrated like a battering ram.
The method and intent of Drusus and his assistant was not one of beating the man, questioning him, and then beating him some more until he answered correctly. No, initiation to the Ludus Magnus for an obstinate slave simply involved a continuous beating until either he voluntarily begged for an end to it with promises of good behavior, or until he passed out. As Philo took a barrage of punishing blows from left and right, he gave no indication he was anywhere near the point of surrender. It was as though he intended to die before giving in. Drusus threw his arsenal of straight punches, hooks and uppercuts with precise accuracy to the left of Philo’s navel, to the right, below it and above, but Philo showed no signs of weakening. With every muscle tensed from his forearms to the calves of his legs, his fists clenched and toes curled, Philo stared blankly, glassy-eyed, his mind seemingly elsewhere. In fact, Philo’s eyes, when opened and not clenched shut from pain, fixated upon me. He gazed past Drusus and concentrated on me.
Perhaps this was because I dressed differently than Drusus — he covered with leather around his waist, sandals on his feet and nothing else; I covered in tunic of brown wool from shoulder to knee, a corded fabric belt around my waist — but I believe that Philo more than likely saw in me a reason for hope. My expression could not lie. It saddened me that he suffered. It was my fault that he suffered, my decision to let him sleep rather than warning him of where I would touch him that brought about his second round of punishment, and I am certain Philo used my frown and the slow turn of my head left to right as his strength. I am also certain my image was the first sign of compassion shown him in many a day, and although I was mostly powerless to help him, I did have one option to use after giving Drusus and his partner a few minutes to make their point.” (Page 16-17)
Coming to the sex, the torture scenes were clearly meant to titillate, and if there’s no torture involved, the sex is rare, brushed over and fairly bland when it happens. It did nothing for me.
In short, a book that clearly makes some effort to be historical in the large picture, but pretty much all details are wrong. All this could have been forgiven if it had been really well-written or well-constructed (I’m happy to forgive wrong details if the author gives me a cracking good read otherwise), but as it stands, this just wasn’t very good.
Who would I recommend this to? People who like torture scenes and have a torture kink, but even those may want to skip the bits in between.