17 March, 2008

Gladiatrix, by Russell Whitfield. Book review.

Myrmidon Books, ISBN 978-1-905802-09-8. Edition reviewed: uncorrected advance review copy.

Set in Roman Asia Minor towards the end of the first century AD, Gladiatrix tells the story of Lysandra, a Spartan priestess of Athene who finds herself captured and enslaved as a gladiatrix (female gladiator) in the Roman arena.

Two characters are based on the two gladiatrices commemorated on a memorial stone discovered in Halicarnassus (in modern south-west Turkey, map here) in the nineteenth century. Nothing is known of the two women depicted on the stone except their stage names – Amazona and Achillia – and the fact that they both survived and retired from the games. Gladiatrix imagines what their lives might have been like, and what extraordinary events might have led to their being honoured with this unique monument. You could say these two are archaeological characters, rather like the character ‘Julia’ in the novel of the same name who was based on a Roman burial discovered in London. All the other main characters are fictional. Two historical figures, the Roman governor of Asia, Julius Sextus Frontinus, and an up-and-coming senator called Trajanus (better known to history as Emperor Trajan) play secondary roles.

As the sole survivor or a shipwreck, Lysandra is captured by the servants of Lucius Balbus, owner of a ludus (school) for gladiatrices. Roman law means that Lysandra is now his property, like any other item salvaged from a shipwreck. Trained from childhood in the Spartan agoge, Lysandra is already expert with weapons and military tactics, and Balbus cannot believe his luck when she despatches her first arena opponent with consummate ease. But Lysandra’s Spartan pride not only attracts powerful enemies in the ludus, it also threatens to destroy her ability to adapt to her new circumstances. The love she finds in her new life will bring her joy – but it will also force her to face her greatest challenge.

Right from the first scene, when we meet Lysandra fighting for her life in the arena without knowing who she is or how she came to be there, Gladiatrix is packed with action. The numerous blow-by-blow fight sequences are detailed, graphic and cinematic, transporting the reader to the hot sands of the Roman arena in all its drama and brutality. Readers who like Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow will find much to enjoy in Gladiatrix. Nor is the action confined to the arena – the tensions that develop between the characters add plenty of conflict to keep the plot barrelling along.

The closed world of the ludus is beautifully realised. Not only does the novel recreate the life and routine of a gladiator training school in loving detail, it also shows how the claustrophobic environment and the ever-present risk of death generate powerful emotional undercurrents. Professional rivalries, nationalistic hatreds, personal attractions and enmities are all writ large. For all her Spartan coolness, Lysandra finds herself inexorably drawn into a passionate whirlwind of love, jealousy, tragedy and revenge.

Lysandra is an intriguing central character. She frequently reflects on the superiority of her own intelligence, education and upbringing, and makes no secret of the fact that she considers everyone else her inferior. Several of the characters comment that the harsh upbringing of the Spartan agoge makes people hard, cold and lacking in imagination. Yet Lysandra is kind to a downtrodden slave girl, and her assumption of superiority is so sincere that it rather grows on you. It becomes endearing in a way, especially when the cannier characters such as Balbus and the priest Telemachus neatly outmanoeuvre her even as she is congratulating herself on her astuteness. Her physical prowess is extraordinary. When we first meet her, she is capable of decapitating an opponent with a single blow, and she very quickly becomes the leader of a group of gladiatrices on the strength of her martial ability. Not her interpersonal skills! Lysandra’s skill and courage earn her respect, but her weakness is her complete inability to see other people’s point of view, and that, combined with her startling tactlessness and her aloof pride bordering on arrogance, earns her some implacable enemies. Given that she manages to antagonise even the kindly trainer Catuvolcos, it isn’t hard to understand why the sadistic Nastasen and the proud senior gladiatrix Sorina take such a bitter dislike to her.

The secondary characters are drawn as distinct individuals with their own hopes and fears. Shrewd Lucius Balbus has to strike a careful balance between pleasing his rich political patrons and turning a profit. The sympathetic Catuvolcos dreams of buying his freedom and settling down with his girl. The barbarian chieftain Sorina burns to gain her freedom in the arena and take vengeance on the Romans who captured her in battle, and the worldly priest Telemachus is all too aware of the need for donations to maintain his impoverished temple. Lysandra’s fellow trainees are distinct individuals from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and all walks of life. The no-nonsense German warrior Hildreth, the raunchy Greek island girl-who-never-says-no Penelope (an inspired choice of name if ever there was one) and the gentle Athenian housewife Danae are drawn together by the training and the risk of death they all share.

The book is written in straightforward modern English. Unfamiliar classical terms such as ludus, lanista and the numerous arena fighting styles are explained at first use, and can usually be worked out from context. Occasional modern expletives, explicit sex scenes and a brutal rape scene mean that Gladiatrix isn’t a novel for the easily offended, but the subject matter and the opening chapter should make this obvious in any case.

A useful author’s note sets out the inspiration for the story and the boundaries between fact and fiction, and more information can be found on the author’s website and the various sites linked from it. The intriguing Epilogue hints at a connection with Rome’s troubles in Dacia, leaving the way open for a potential sequel – which I will be looking forward to.

Action-packed adventure full of love, hate and the thrills and spills of the arena.


Gabriele Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gabriele Campbell said...

Sounds interesting. I had heard about the book but wasn't sure it would not turn out a Mary Sue ninja, em, gladiatrix in a Roman setting for exotic measure, so I didn't buy it yet.

But I'm glad tohear it's genuine historical fiction, and I'll add it to my list now.

Rick said...

Mary Sue ninja - LOL!

It takes a certain courage for an author to take on seriously material that has such Roger Corman / Frank Frazetta overtones in the pop culture. Gladiatrix babes! I'm reminded of George McDonald Frazer's observation that in HollyRome, all roads lead to the arena.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Red Sonja of the Coliseum. :)

I have no problem with that sort of stories when it's plain that it is S&S loosely based on a Roman setting, but in Historical fiction I prefer more realism, so I'm glad to hear the author delivered.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Hope you enjoy it! I don't know if it's available in Germany, but I daresay amazon.de will have it if it is. Lysandra's remarkable first performance in the arena (in chapter one) could conceivably be construed as Mary Sue-ish if you wanted to see it that way, but keep reading and you get to see more of her character. I think that's a potential issue with the "start with the action" mantra - it doesn't let the author show you anything subtle about the character so it's all too easy to make a (wrong) assumption. One reason why I try to give a novel several chapters at least before forming an opinion!

Rick - the absence of chain mail bikinis on the cover art is always a hopeful sign! Is that actually true about Hollywood Rome, BTW? Is an arena scene compulsory, like larks' tongues and dormice? I've never noticed, or else I don't watch enough Roman epics.

By the way, Gladiatrix passes Mary Beard's dormouse test, you'll be pleased to hear. I should have noted that in the review :-)

Russell Whitfield said...

I'm glad that "Gladiatrix" passed the dormouse test...especially cos I wasn't aware that that test was out there! I have to tell you that that is more by accident than by design...Given another banquet scene, there would have been a dormouse, I'm sure.

Rick - it's always going to have Cormanesque overtones...expecially as it's called "Gladiatrix" which almost sounds like "Dominatrix" - people think it might be erotica at first. Could be a few more sales in that....hmmm....

But the "Gladiatrix" title I'm sure made the publisher look twice at the manuscript - and I guess the book "does what it says on the tin" so to speak. If I was in a bookshop, given my love of ancient history, I'd like to think that I'd turn the book over to see the back cover blurb.

I put a fair bit of research into the book - enough to know that where I've strayed from accuracy to inaccuracy at least. That will annoy some purists, I know. For instance, I don't have traditional styles of gladiatrix going up against each other all the time - why...well, Gladatrix isn't set in Rome, it's set in the provinces. The combats there weren't as rigd as they were in Rome itself, so I theroised that it might be the case that different styles went up against each other. But that might some wailing and gnashing of teeth as I say.

But on the whole, I've tried to make it as accurate AND entertaining as I can.

Gabriel C - I'm not sure how you've managed to get a glimpse of the sequel - "Russus and Lysandra vs the Space Ninjas of Rome..." - have you been hacking my PC - Damn! Now I'll have to re-write....

Seriously, glad it's on your list, and yes, it is available from amazon.de and all good book shops in the UK (and some rubbish ones too).

Carla - I'm made up that you enjoyed "Gladiatrix" and have reviewed it here. I can't thank you enough for taking time out to write such a detailed commentary on the book. As you know, writing them is a job and a half, and when people enjoy what you've done, it's corny but true to say that that is the biggest reward.

In answer to your question - yes, I think that an gladiatorial scene is a must have - even if it's in the background at a dinner party where the guests eating their dormice!

Meghan said...

I had never even heard of a gladiatrix! That's extremely interesting material to write with. Your review is well-written, so I might just have to pick this one up.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol Russell, I can see how the title will help with the sales. Though if you want a real runner, you'll need something like Virgin Slave, Barbarian King (that one's about the Visigoths, and I stayed away from it after I read the reviews. ;)

So you plan more books set in Roman times?

Russell Whitfield said...

Hi Gabriele - Yes, I'm writing a sequel to "Gladiatrix" at the moment. I'm not really that far into it yet, but I know where I'm going, which is the main thing! Sadly, it doesn't have a cool title "Gladiatrix II - Slave Girls of Rome" or anything like that.



ps (actually, that's a pretty good title...)

Gabriele Campbell said...

They always come in trilogies, don't they? *grin*

I have one as well, spanning some hundred years, with a nice family feud and assorted battles in Germania and Britannia.

But I still need some cool titles, right now they go by A Land Unconquered, Eagle of the Sea and Caledonia Defiant, and the latter title sucks.

Carla said...

Russell - The dormouse test came up in Sarah Cuthbertson's HNS Rules for Classical Historical Fiction, and I wonder if Professor Mary Beard saw it there first :-) I admit the title made me think twice, but the cover art didn't look like erotica so I gave it the benefit of the doubt! I'm glad you liked the review.

Meghan - Russell's author's note draws the parallel with women's football today. It was a minority interest sport, but there's no doubt that female gladiators existed. They are mentioned in some documentary sources, then there's the Halicarnassus stone, plus a grave believed to be a female gladiator was excavated in London not so long ago. I believe the US rights have been sold, so with luck it should be available on your side of the Pond before too long.

Gabriele - with a title like that Visigoth book I doubt I'd have got as far as the reviews :-)

Russell - to be followed by Gladiatrix III - The Amazon Strikes Back? I always find titles really difficult; I usually don't get even a working title until halfway through the story :-)

Kirsten Campbell said...

It sounds great, and after reading your review, Carla, I think I will definitely get it. I was already interested in this one; I love the ambience of the cover. My to-read list has just increased by one!

Russell - A title along the lines of - say - Gladiatrix II: Colosseum of the Women Warriors would definitely bring in readers from the fanboy fringe! ;)

Gabriele - Lol, I stayed away from Virgin Slave, Barbarian King on the basis of the title!

Don't even mention those damn trilogies...

Gabriele Campbell said...

I came across a review on the Smart Bitches website and learned from the reviews it was about the Visigoth siege of Rome.

The problem with the book is, as I understood, that it tries to be a historical romances with history, and fails. Had it been but a cheesy variant of the Scotland romances with a Roman setting, it might even have been fun in a cheesy way. After all, I read some of those pseudo-Scotland stories and laughed all my way through them.

Carla said...

Kirsten - Hope you enjoy it, and let us know what you think!

Gabriele - you never know, the Visigoth book might be similar to the Highland romances. What's the Visigoth equivalent of a kilt and claymore?

Russell Whitfield said...

See...I'm getting all these great titles just by hanging out on Carla's blog! Wicked!

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Thanks for the review, Carla. So it passes the Dormouse Test - that's promising.

Carla said...

Russell - don't worry, we charge very reasonable rates :-)

Sarah - if you read it, I'll be interested to hear what you think.

Rick said...

Russell -

If I was in a bookshop, given my love of ancient history, I'd like to think that I'd turn the book over to see the back cover blurb.

I certainly would!

You also mention what sounds like an excellent benchmark for writing historical fiction: knowing where and why you are bending fact. I suspect that experienced readers, even if unfamiliar with a period, can sense whether or not an author knows their way around or is faking it.

Carla said...

Rick - "I suspect that experienced readers, even if unfamiliar with a period, can sense whether or not an author knows their way around or is faking it."
Interesting point! If this is the case, I wonder if it could be another aspect of the world created in the novel being coherent within itself? Tolkien's Middle-Earth doesn't exist as such, but it's obvious that Tolkien knew his way around it even though (by definition) nothing about it can be externally verified as 'accurate'.

Rick said...

Carla - If this is the case, I wonder if it could be another aspect of the world created in the novel being coherent within itself?

Yes, I think so, and Tolkien is indeed a great example. Any novel's world is really a stage set, but it is the coherence and detailing that give the illusion that behind the false fronts is the rest of a town. It can be small things - show grooves in the street pavement marking former trolley (tram) tracks, and suddenly the town has a past.

I suppose in England the hints could be a lot older than the Electric Age!

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

I gave up about halfway through Gladiatrix: it was too much of a bonkbuster for blokes to appeal to me.

Carla said...

Rick - oh, you can go back to the Neolithic in England, a couple of thousand years before Stonehenge :-). Though in most of history people wouldn't really have had much of a clue about the actual age of prehistoric structures - hence Geoffrey of Monmouth cheerfully allocating Stonehenge to Merlin.

Sarah - Did you think so? I don't recall that many sex scenes. The attitudes of some of the trainers are pretty unpleasant, but I suppose they would be.

Russell Whitfield said...

Hi Sarah - just to say thanks for reading part of Gladiatrix. It's great to hear honest feedback - as Carla's review says, the novel isn't going to be for everyone.

I'm sorry you thought it was a bonkbuster - there's a racy page or two for sure, but I didn't think that I went over the top: mind you, I guess the whole idea of warrior women can bring to mind Roger Corman movies as Rick says above - and to be fair, that whole Cormanesque was actually part of the show - even in Roman times Gladiatrices were seen (from what I can glean from the sources) as bit of a laugh, a bit of titiliation most of the time. For instance, Halicarnassus image clearly has the fighters with exposed breasts.

I'm not honestly sure that I'd go as far as to call it a bonkbuster, but I can understand that the book isn't for everyone. I did try to make the appeal as broad as I could, and I am sorry that you didn't enjoy it.

All the best


Rick said...

Russell - that whole Cormanesque was actually part of the show - even in Roman times

Isn't this a big part of the pleasure of Rome - we relate to them, and especially their bad habits. We are not big on doormice or larks' tongues (or was that a medieval thing?), but we feel they'd have understood television perfectly.

Carla said...

Rick - Exactly. Have a look at Mary Beard's article on the dormouse test - I linked to it in my first comment - if you haven't already. She makes exactly the same point as you do, that part of our enduring fascination with Rome is that we can (or we think we can) see ourselves in them. BTW, dormice and larks' tongues are genuine, not a medieval invention.

Annis said...

Excellent review, Carla. I’ d seen mention of Russell’s book a while ago, and had assumed because of the Asia Minor setting that it might be based on the Halicarnassus carving.
I’ve always been obsessed with the Greeks and Romans (studied Latin at school), so
I was keeping an eye on “Gladiatrix”, and bought a copy after reading your review.

I thought it a vivid, quite cinematic story, and really enjoyed the descriptions of the ludus, the training and those graphic fight scenes - wow! Though having practised karate for many years, the thought of fighting without some sort of breast band makes me wince:) Still it would have been all about pleasing the customers rather than the comfort of the gladatrices!
Sex and violence were what sold the games (some things don’t change!) so I don’t feel that Russell is going OTT in making them a major feature of “Gladiatrix”.
There’s been a bit of discussion about the lesbian affair between Lysandra and Erianwen, but given their circumstances, that sort of relationship seems a natural progression.

And Lysandra is a great heroine; you never know whether you admire her, or want to box her ears- a feeling she also inspires amongst the other characters in the book.

Loved the "dormouse test"- haven't come across that before!

Carla said...

Annis - thank you, and I'm glad to hear you found the review useful and enjoyed the book! Someone in the novel comments that the arena sold sex and death, and the book does an effective job of portraying that. Neat thumbnail sketch of Lysandra :-)