Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Blood, vengeance, and freedom: A review of Spartacus: The Gladiator

Tomorrow I’ll have an interview with Mr. Kane and will have information for a giveaway of this title.


Ben Kane returns to comfortable territory, ancient Rome, in his latest novel Spartacus: The Gladiator. Given the relative paucity of historical documentation on the ancient gladiator-turned revolutionary, there is considerable room for an author to present his own unique take on the man. Mr. Kane accomplishes that well, with a presentation of Spartacus that rings true to the few historical details we have about him while, at the same time, being distinct from the famous Kubrick/Fast/Douglas version or the  version defined for a new generation by the recent cable television series.

While the broad shape of the plot follows unsurprising historical territory by taking Spartacus from slave gladiator to leader of an insurgent army, Mr. Kane does a fine job of fleshing out many incidents and battles to create an exciting, if often violent, story of blood and vengeance. This is the first part of the series and covers the initial portion of what is now known to us as the Third Servile War.

The book’s primary strength is its battle scenes. Action is executed and described with crisp, yet tense, economy, reflecting well the chaos of battle. The author’s fine eye for historical detail helps enhance the battle scenes. There are a few deviations from known history, but the author explains those in later notes following the story.

Although the emphasis is on action, the author uses balanced historical detail well to help enhance the background of several of the characters and even provide some plausible explanations for some of the shocking and early successes of Spartacus against the Romans. Those familiar with the period will definitely respect the effort. There are even a few sly nods to historical controversies that keen-eyed readers will likely appreciate.

Those less familiar with ancient Roman history should not be overwhelmed either, as the historical information is integrated well and not just dumped on the reader. A few unusual historical details were also used to help create a few new characters that aren’t typically seen in Spartacus retellings. These new additions added some interesting perspectives to the story.

Characterization is generally good for Spartacus and a few characters close to him, but some of the other secondary characters come off a bit flat at times.  The action-focused nature of the narrative somewhat minimizes this issue, though.

The attention to accuracy could be disturbing for some readers. The slave force of Spartacus takes the old “rape and plunder” idea seriously, even if their leader himself is presented as being above the worst of it. This is realistic for the period and, as pointed out by one of the characters, the “disciplined” Roman army certainly wasn’t above this kind of behavior (even ignoring their penchant for slavery), but it does create a more morally nuanced tale than “righteous slave army of freedom versus the dastardly Romans” and results in several scenes that reflect the often indiscriminate brutality of ancient war.

Though some nods are made toward Roman politics and there are a few scenes that do a fine job of delightfully painting why Marcus Licinius Crassus was such a foul man even by the standards of ancient Rome, the focus is still firmly on Spartacus and his allies. While enhancing the intimacy of their particular gladiator/slave struggle, it does potentially rob the narrative of a bit more epic scope.

Overall, Spartacus: the Gladiator was a solid action-packed retelling of the opening moves of an ancient, bloody struggle of slaves for both freedom and vengeance against the powerful Roman Republic.

Disclaimer: An ARC of this novel was provided to me for free by the publisher. My opinions of the book are my own.


Teddy Rose said...

Thanks so much for taking part in the tour. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book!

J.A. Beard said...

The pleasure is mine. I can rarely get enough ancient Roman stuff. :)

Carl said...

I'm very interested in this re-telling of the story of Spartacus. As the author says "what's not to like?". Please enter my name for the chance to win this copy.


J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for your interest, Carl.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that you liked the book, J.A.! Thanks for hosting me on the tour.

Good luck with the giveaway, Carl.

J.A. Beard said...

My pleasure, Ben.