I received a complementary copy of Gladiatrix, by Russell Whitfield, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program (and a wonderful program it is!). Being a huge fan of Mary Renault, Steven Pressfield (ok he mostly does Greece), Wallace Breem, and of course, the movie Gladiator, I was eagerly anticipating this book. Gladiatrix is the story of Lysandra, the female gladiator. Not a lot of mystery about what this book is going to be about!
First off, let’s get it out of the way: the title. Gladiatrix. With a name like that, you expect some titillation, and some lesbianism – if that’s what you’re looking for, you will not be disappointed. Gladiatrices regularly seem to fight in the nude, and the sex scenes are pretty graphic. The subject matter seems to inspire lurid treatment – for example, witness Roger Corman’s Gladiatrix movie with Pam Grier, or the Discovery Channel Documentary on the Gladiatrix finds in London (less salacious). Between the title, the premise, and the cover art, I think the book will sell heavily, and although there have been other gladiatrix movies, I’d expect another one. But I digress.
The early stages of the book heavily echo the themes of the movie Gladiator – someone from the upper echelons of society, driven by circumstance into the arena – personal misfortune, gladiator school, rising through the ranks because of innate quality. It is heavily derivative from Gladiator, and in the early going I found myself annoyed that it felt so clearly imitative. I got over it before too long – at some level, it is truth in advertising: this book is Gladiator with a female protagonist. I was disappointed early on that some scenes didn’t happen “on camera”: Lysandra is enslaved through a shipwreck and ensuing events – yet the shipwreck and those events are not really rendered – they would have made nice scenes, and a good counterpoint to the constant martial circumstances that follow. I periodically wondered how historically accurate the book was (of course, there were female gladiatrices) – the references to other historical personages seem accurate insofar as I can tell (but I’m no expert here). I don’t know whether Spartan princesses existed, or whether they received battle training, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief on that point. But the historical side of things doesn’t get much play – this isn’t historical fiction ala Saylor or Pressfield. The book at times feels more like a romance novel, oddly enough – due to the interpersonal issues and personal conflicts that drive the novel forward. The dialog is at times stilted, sometimes the prose feels awkward. I believe it’s a first novel and it periodically feels like one. Lysandra comes off as an insufferable teenager (which in fact she is). But after a few hundred pages, I wanted to say to the author, “OK, I get it – she’s arrogant – you don’t have to beat me over the head with it”. I wanted to see more personal development out Lysandra, but perhaps that is to wait for another installment. The book is not explicitly part of a series, but the deus ex machina ending leads me to conclude more is forthcoming.
In the end, I enjoyed the book, and finished it quickly, but I am left wondering who the intended audience is. This is no Renault or Pressfield novel, peering deep into the human condition to find the things that ennoble us. And I don’t believe it’s a juvenile book – the tone feels wrong and the sex is a bit graphic for that. The fights are good and the swordplay frequent. Perhaps it’s just good old fashioned entertainment – just like the Arena was, thousands of years ago.