Thanks to the kind folks at St. Martin’s Press and Virtual Author Book Tours, I received an advance copy of Ben Kane’s new novel, Spartacus the Gladiator. I was eager to read it because Spartacus is a fascinating historical figure and I’ve been a big fan of the Starz series ever since Spartacus: Blood and Sand. I enjoyed Spartacus the Gladiator, and my review follows this image of the book’s cover.
In the novel, Spartacus is a Thracian and veteran of the Roman legions who studies their tactics in the hope of going home and leading his own army against the hated Romans. When he returns to Thrace, however, Spartacus learns a usurper has killed the king, as well as his own father, and seized the throne. Spartacus plots a rebellion, but when the king discovers his plans, Spartacus is captured and sold to a Roman slaver. Despite this setback, Spartacus gains an unlikely companion in Ariadne, a priestess of Dionysus who offers to join him in slavery in order to escape the lecherous king who longs to rape her.
The fact that Ariadne goes with Spartacus and remains his companion throughout his slave rebellion is the first of several surprises in the novel. Another surprise is Carbo, a Roman teenager who joins the ludus (gladiator school) in Capua as an auctoratus (sort of a gladiator for hire) after his family falls on hard times. Though he ultimately joins Spartacus’ rebellion, Carbo becomes torn between his sympathies for his fellow Romans and his loyalty to Spartacus, one of the few people who believes in him.
Once in Capua, the novel tracks the historical story of Spartacus, from his gladiator revolt and escape from the ludus, to his massive slave rebellion against the Romans. Less than a third of the novel takes place in Capua, and the ludus’ owner, Lentulus Batiatus, is at best a minor villain. The primary antagonists are the Roman generals and their armies, which Spartacus and his gladiators take on from Mount Vesuvius to central Italy, and here’s where the novel really shines. The large scale battle scenes are the highlight, and the author does a great job of showing us events from both Spartacus’ and the Romans’ point-of view.
There is more to the novel than just gladiators versus the Romans, however, as Spartacus faces equally dangerous enemies in his own ranks while trying to hold together an army of Thracians, Gauls, and Germans. Crixus and Oenomaus – historical gladiators with whom readers may be familiar from other versions of the Spartacus story – play prominent roles in the novel, as does Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, who is charged with ending the slave rebellion. The novel never gets to the climactic battle between Crassus and Spartacus as this is the first book of what the author suggests will be a two book series. But Spartacus the Gladiator stands on its own, and in the end proves to be a bloody good read!