An upper-class Roman teenager trains for gladiatorial combat after his family suddenly falls on hard times in this imported opener.
Readers primed for lots of arena action from the melodramatic cover are in for disappointment. Left destitute after the abrupt disappearance of their father, meek Lucius takes a job as a messenger in his uncle Ravilla’s gladiator school, and his older brother, Quintus, enrolls as a “novicius,” or novice fighter. Scott folds in colorful references to life in the first-century city (“a meat vendor who was selling piles of fresh red lungs was splattering everyone in the vicinity with blood”), Latin words with, often, explanatory footnotes, and many specialized terms for gladiatorial gear. Despite this, he provides only occasional glimpses of fighters on the training grounds and just two actual bouts—neither featuring Quin. Instead, most of the story is given over to the brothers’ bickering over whether their father is guilty or not of espionage for the previous imperial regime and Lucius’ fretting as he sees Quin becoming more attached to the gladiatorial “familia” than his own. Worse yet, though Lucius confronts Ravilla after finding out that his uncle is up to no good, the episode cuts off abruptly sans resolution, revelation, or even cliffhanger.
Isolated splashes of gore notwithstanding, an angst-y, anemic setup volume offering little incentive to look up sequels. (overview map, appendix of gladiator types) (Historical fiction. 10-12)