Link for US Buyers: The Gladiator’s Honor (Harlequin Historical Series)
Updated 3pm EST 12/4/06 to add:
The trouble with Mills & Boon and their US counterpart, Harlequin, is not the content or even the secret sheihk’s baby daddy plot lines. My problem? The SIZE. Size MATTERS. Why does size matter? Because when a Mills & Boon book you’re supposed to review falls behind your TBRv pile (not to be confused with the TBR pile) there’s no chance you’re going to spot it.The slim and trim and fashionably slender series? Never saw it hiding back there.
So, with apologies to the author who was nice enough to send me this copy an embarrassingly long time ago, herewith is my micro review for The Gladiator’s Honour: Book good. Book Very Good. Go Read Book Now.
And here’s the macro review:
When Michelle Styles first emailed me about her book (again, length of time ago, very embarrassing, much apologies) and told me that it was set in ancient Rome, 65 B.C. to be precise, my first thought was, “Now that’s a time period we don’t see much of.” But following that thought, coming up to kick it’s behind, was the realization that there is a lot of fascination with the ancient Romans lately, particularly with the dishy and dramatic HBO series Rome, which is about to start a new season (if it hasn’t already). Talk about timing – you can get yourself some Roman romance & intrigue in books and on tv.
Ancient Rome is a brilliant setting for a romance. Much like there are strict social rules in Regency England, and the periods before and afterward, there were equally strict rules in Roman society, and thus reading The Gladiator’s Honour was both innovative and familiar – a classic romance in an entirely new and very interesting setting.
Julia Antonia, a divorced Roman noblewoman, is visiting the baths with her stepmother when she meets Valens the Thracian, one of the most revered gladiators in the city. Much like half of New York when the Yankees are in the playoffs, Rome is Gladiator-mad, and Julius Caesar has decided to assemble the gladiators for a spectacle in honor of his late father. The gladiators themselves are arriving and causing a stir in the streets when Julia leaves the baths to go see what the fuss is about. She runs literally right into Valens.
As a hero, Valens is delicious. He is of noble lineage, but was captured by pirates years prior, and his ransom was never paid. He ended up attending gladiator school, but as a gladiator he’s a slave to his owner, and considered by Roman society to be of even less worth than a slave. Fighting in the arena as a gladiator is a permanent stain that places one outside polite society and one cannot remove it. Yet the gladiators are objects of sexual fantasy and the equivalent of sports heroes at that time, and as such can amass great wealth, fame, and popularity. Still, no family would welcome a gladiator as a son-in-law. It would be more than a small scandal. So Valens has women offering themselves to him, small children asking for his attention, and most of Rome on their tiptoes waiting to see what he’ll do in the arena, but as a person he’s socially worth less than nothing.
Thus Valens is forbidden fruit – sexy, muscular, and kind forbidden fruit – but this means little to Julia, except for the sexy and kind part. Julia isn’t a fan of the games and isn’t remotely interested in the gladiators themselves. When she meets Valens, he’s startled that she speaks to him as a person, not as a lovesick fan or as a superior. And since she’s never heard of him, and isn’t impressed by his accomplishments, he’s even more curious about her. She sees him merely as himself, which is an intoxicating experience for a worthless slave who has figurines of himself for sale all over town.
Julia is equally curious about him, not because he’s a gladiator, but because he’s hot, and, to her own surprise, she noticed. She divorced her husband, much to the dismay of her stepmother, because he beat her, and as a free woman has a unique position in Roman society. The devil she knows, her stepmother, was a much better adversary than the devil she came to know through her bruises, so she left him and chose to move home to her father’s house. Julia is trying at every moment to live her life according to the ideal of Roman womanhood while navigating the mercurial temper of her stepmother, who forced Julia’s first marriage to get Julia out of her way, and maintaining a scandal-free life so as not to upset her father’s precarious position of favor in Caesar’s Senate. Her attraction to Valens is unacceptable, and while she’s proud of herself for conversing with him easily and pleased that he noticed her, she is horribly conflicted about her interest in him.
Fortunately and unfortunately for both, Caesar has to have the gladiators housed in small groups in private homes, because the Senate fears that the gladiators en masse constitute a private army solely at Caesar’s command. Valens is placed in Julia’s father’s home, which horrifies her stepmother Sabina, and pleases her father, since hosting such a prominent gladiator, even if they are socially beneath the family’s status, is a sign of Caesar’s favor. They are forced into contact inside her father’s home, and their attraction grows to irresistible levels.
Yet there are forces working against them beyond Valens’ status as a gladiator. Valens discovers the treachery that caused his slavery and who was behind it, and both Julia and Valens find their interest in one another has larger ramifications politically than they suspected, even as they try to keep it a secret.
What I liked most about this book was finding a writer who can master a new twist on romantic themes – the captive noble hero trying to redeem his honor, the heroine trying to live up to unattainable ideals yet forced to take enormous personal risks for her happiness, and the negotiation of an illicit relationship within the confines of strict social rules and norms – all of which set in a time period that isn’t common for historical romance.
Styles has a lot of talent working in her favor as well: her writing style is lyrical, and her grasp of the historical time period is significant, but both combine to allow friendly access to a reader who isn’t at all familiar with ancient Rome. Further, her writing establishes romantic tension and sustains it through the story, so that the reader can root for the characters immediately as the setting and cast are introduced in the first few pages. This book has a big ol’ hook hiding in its toga and it’s not afraid to sink it into the reader.
And how’s the romance? Satisfying! Both characters serve as catalysts for change in each other, which I always enjoy, but both have to endure personal risk and hurt to earn their happy ending. Even then, Styles makes it clear that there can be no events that fall outside the possibility of Roman law. Valens and Julia have to find their way within the society in which they live, and while that means the ending might be disappointing to some who see the characters as having earned more than they received, Styles’ commitment to legal and social accuracy is commendable for its own sake, and for the fact that it leaves the reader feeling as if they’ve grasped some understanding of Roman society and thus some understanding of the ending of the story.
The realism is my only disappointment and it’s selfish disappointment at that. I wanted more to happen to the negative forces working against Julia, not just those who betrayed Valens. A righteous Roman bitchslapping here and there for her stepmother might have been nice. But regardless of my own personal desire for bitchin’ slappery, The Gladiator’s Honour was a marvelously enjoyable book.