Her people were a peculiar tribe. Direct descendants of the Spartans of old, Maedi soldiers were hardened by physical labor, honed and bent and reshaped so that the resulting body and psyche reacted like coiled springs. Pain could be tolerated or even ignored. A sword or bow or staff or even a rock was simply an extension of the self. Fighting was instinctual, natural, effortless. Sparro carried—had carried—a sword that weighed almost as much as Attia did, and Crius could pin a man to the wall with his spear.

Attia wasn’t particularly strong. She certainly wasn’t big. But she was a Thracian—a warrior of the Maedi. And this poor, stupid vigil was not.

Attia is the last of her kind.

The royal heir and next leader of Thrace, Attia has been trained in the arts of battle since she was a child. Her father Sparra, swordlord of the Maedi and war-king of Thrace, honed his people—even his own kin—into warriors ready to take on any invaders who would threaten their shores. Even the Gods. Even the Roman Empire. In their last great stand against Rome, however, the mighty warriors of Thrace were felled—Sparra killed upon a Roman legionnaire’s sword, the Maedi clan thoroughly decimated by the overwhelming numbers and might of the Roman Army.

Attia alone survived and was made a slave, sold into the House of Timmeus—the most renowned trainer of gladiators in all of the Empire. Here, she is to be a gift to the great Xanthus, Champion of Rome—a prize from Timmeus to keep his champion pliant.

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  Little does Timmeus know that Attia and Xanthus share a common history and burning rage against Roma Victrix. Together, the pair will light the spark that will become the slave rebellion against Rome—together, they become the legend of Spartacus.

C.V. Wyk’s debut novel, Blood and Sand is a raw alternate historical imagining of one of the most well-known and oft-reproduced figures of the Roman Empire. (Hell, the Starz first season version of Spartacus was actually called Spartacus: Blood and Sand.) Wyk’s take, however, has an irresistible premise: what if Spartacus was a woman? (Or, more accurately, a young woman and a gladiatorial champion working together to create a legend.) I’ve been reading a few of these types of gender-flipped reimaginings of late (see Sherry Thomas’s brilliant Lady Sherlock series starting with A Study in Scarlet Women and Kara Connolly’s delightful time travel take on Robin Hood with No Good Deed) and have to say that I’ve been enjoying them immensely. Blood and Sand is another success in this subgenre, featuring a forceful, compelling (if flawed) heroine at its heart.

It is because of Attia, and the bond between the Thracian war-princess and Xanthus, Champion of Rome, that Blood and Sand works. Attia is defiant and physically strong without being a two-dimensional figurehead; her grief at the loss of her father, the loss of her entire people and civilization is a powerful, palpable core to her character. Similarly, Xanthus’s transformation from a saddened, spirit-defeated Champion at the beginning of the novel—who upon first meeting is determined to let his opponent kill him in the arena—to a fighter with something and someone to believe in is as powerful and impressive as Attia’s own journey. The hope and gradual trust that forms between Attia and Xanthus, and the inevitable, heart-shattering crescendo that the novel takes in its last act, is the stuff that Roman Gladiator epics are made of. (By all the old gods of Thrace, I hope that this is the first book in a planned series—because that ending!)

On the negative side, however, Wyk shies away from too much historical detail and doesn’t spend much time on the world-building front—which perhaps may dismay some readers who want a broader context for the period. That said, the characters are so charismatic and the plotting so fast-paced that you won’t notice or care too much.

In Book Smugglerish, 7 gladiator thumbs up out of 10.