22 May, 2012

Spartacus: The Gladiator

Title: Spartacus: The Gladiator
Author: Ben Kane
Genre: Historical fiction
Audience: Adult
Format: Book from the publisher

From Goodreads: The first of two epic novels which tell the story of one of the most charismatic heroes history has ever known -- Spartacus, the gladiator slave who took on and nearly defeated the might of Rome, during the years 73-71 BC.

In historical terms we know very little about Spartacus the man -- partly because most contemporary Roman historians were keen to obliterate his memory and prevent him from attaining mythic status. This of course is grist to the novelist's mill. Ben Kane's brilliant novel begins in the Thracian village to which Spartacus has returned, after escaping from life as an auxiliary in the Roman army. But here he quickly falls foul of his overlord, the Thracian king, who has set his heart on Dionysian priestess, Ariadne -- later to become wife of Spartacus. Betrayed again to the Romans by his jealous king, Spartacus -- and with him Ariadne -- are taken in captivity to the school of gladiators at Capua. It is here -- against the unbelievable brutality of gladiatorial life -- that Spartacus and Crixus the Gaul plan the audacious overthrow of their Roman masters, escaping to Vesuvius, where they recruit and train a huge slave army -- an army which will keep the might of Rome at bay for two years and create one of the most extraordinary legends in history. Spartacus: The Gladiator takes the story up to the moment when the slave army has inflicted its first great defeat on Rome.

What I thought: I was very excited to be asked to review Spartacus: The Gladiator by Ben Kane. First, it’s the first time I’ve been asked to review a book. Second, it’s a period of history I don’t know a lot about and most probably wouldn’t choose to read about and I love being pushed out of my reading comfort zone. And I am glad I was pushed!
It did take me awhile to get into the flow of the book – but that was mainly to do with the fact that I had trouble finding time to read uninterrupted. Spartacus has a fast pace to it, which for me means I need to be able to spend a large chunk of time reading or I lose the flow. Once I managed a couple of solid sessions, I really stared to enjoy it. In this, the first of two books, Kane takes us from Spartacus’ return to Thrace, through him being sold into slavery, his escape and the building of an army which defeated many a Roman assault against them. As I said before, it’s not a period of history I know a lot about, so I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of the book, but the author’s note at the end takes pains to explain what in the book is known fact and what has had to be filled in.
Kane keeps the story moving along at a quick pace, lending a feeling of desperation to the situation. He draws a clear picture of the difference between the upper echelons of Roman society and the hardship of the slaves owned by them. He does not shy away from what would have been the reality of war in that time – rape, pillage and the sacking of towns are common. The description of battles is graphic and wouldn’t be recommended for those with a weak stomach! What it does do is highlight the brutal nature of the time and the battles that were fought. I myself love historical novels that do their best to portray the truth of the time they are set in.
My only problem with the book was Spartacus’ wife, Ariadne. A priestess of Dionysius, I found her to be a bit two dimensional, her character stilted and not quite real. As the only significant female character I was disappointed to not be able to connect with her. On the whole though I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading the sequel.