What is it about gladiators that seem to make authors want to put them in nearly every novel set in Ancient Rome of late? Maybe it's one of those latent teenage fantasies where you get to whallop the hell out of your enemy, and have the men or women of your choice lusting after you? Let's face it, the warrors in the arena were the NFL players of their day.
Former screenwriter James Duffy has taken a tale of a young teenager born into a good family, and tricked into slavery, and who finds his way into the gladiatorial schools. Quintus Honorius Romanus, life is gold. Born into a patrician family, and living in the heart of Rome during the rule of Nero, he is looking forward to a future full of possibilities. He evades his loving mother whenever possible to slip off to the arena to watch the gladiatorial combats, following the fighting with a keen interest and plenty of excitement. His father sometimes sneaks off with him as well, and we get to see them in the opening pages of the novel, enjoying a rare naval battle, where the arena would be flooded and ships launched to recreate famous battles.
In fact, there's only one problem in Quintus' life -- Lucius, a slave in his family's household who's evil tempered, and jealous, and is bold enough to pick fights with him. It's enough to make the family decide to pack him off to distant relations in Britannia where he'll be less of a nuisance when the family there to deliever a large and valuable shipment of goods. But when a shipwreck leaves only Lucius and Quintus as survivors on Britain's coast, Lucius takes a bold step and it's Quintus who is the slave now...
It's a hard life for Quintus, but he decides to take a daring step and runs away to join a ludus, a training school for gladiators, and we get to follow along as he learns the intricate rituals of the arena, and the skills needed to survive as a gladitor. As Taurus, Quintus finds his own niche in life, enjoying the power he has over the crowds, and finding friends among the other killers in the school, both among the trainers and a young African hunter, Lindani, who is a ventore or hunter.
But he hasn't forgotten about the treacherous Lucius, and vows that one day he will avenge his family and himself. How he gets from here to there is what makes the story interesting, at least from a fighting perspective.
But there are some serious problems with this novel. When I was a few chapters in, I figured out where the plot was going, I mentally groaned and thought this was going to turn out to be another <a href="[...]">Liberty,</a> a very bad novel focused on a woman gladiator. And Sand of the Arena is rather close to the other novel in subject, action and scope.
But the difference lays in Duffy's skill as a screenwriter. The action sequences and life in the fighting schools is fairly well done, full of vigor and excitement. But once he shifts the focus to the revenge story, or tries to tell it from Lucius' viewpoint, the writing turns to mawkish tripe. It's boring, and not that stirring. The other large fault is found in that all of the characters is that they are rather one note in depth -- Lucius is nasty and mean, Aunt Julia is most a pin-up fantasy, Lindari is the courageous second fiddle to Quintus' overwrought testosterone, Amazonia - a woman gladiator -- is trying to out-macho the guys and waves her bosom around, and so one. Everyone is either insufferably good, or out and out bad, and that doesn't make for interesting characters.
But where this does succeed is when Duffy focuses on the actual fighting, training and lifestyle of the gladiators. Duffy researchs the various fighter types, the rigid lifestyle and imparts little snippets about life in the arena, whether it's combat between man and man, or man against beast. Along the way he also dispells some of the myths about gladiator life, mostly gleaned from Hollywood -- most gladiators were not killed at the end of the bouts, being that their training and maintenance were too high for a casual killing -- it would be equivalent to executing the loosing side in a pro football game. Too, Duffy sought out modern day reinactors of gladitorial combat, and evidently listened and watched while they filled him in on the skills and fights -- it's here where the novel gets good.
But there were a few bits and twists that had me wonderings. One was Lucius -- I could never see a slave getting away with attacking a free member of the household over the breakfast table without a crucifixion in the future. The other was the tatooes or stigmatae that Quintus gets put on his chest and back; it's troublesome to find out if Romans used tattoos as body ornaments, as most burials were cremations. The final problem I had was the constant sex in the arena stands, and with patrician couples indulging in orgies -- yes, there is a historical record for that, but it's regarded as a not very Roman thing to do, at least for well-born women.
Other than that, this novel reads more like a modified movie script. It's exciting, certainly, and better than most novels set in the period, without excessive moralizing about how decadent Ancient Rome was, but it's also a very predictable novel. As long as the hero is out slugging the stuffing out of his opponent in the arena, it's fine -- but anything else and it flounders.
Duffy did include several drawings on the endpapers of various gladiator types rigged out in fighting gear, a very nice touch. There is also an introduction, where he credits the people who helped him with the research and gives websites to find some of those combat reinactors here in the United States.
There is a second novel in the works, titled The Fight For Rome, due in September 2007 in hardback which continues the story of Quintus and his friends.
Somewhat recommended, probably four stars if you really enjoy this topic. But Colleen McCullough's novels are still better than this.