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REVIEW: The Gladiator’s Master by Fae Sutherland and Marguerite Labbe

Dear Ms. Sutherland and Ms. Labbe.

Your book was pointed out to me by someone in my “trust network,” the description intrigued me, and I checked it out. I’m glad I did. The book was compelling, even if I had issues with it all the way through.

I kind of cringe when I read historical books set before the eighteenth century. It’s very difficult for me to believe that the authors can get it really right (not that I’m a historical expert by any means), because the way people think and relate to each other were so foreign. So I usually read squinting the whole way through. This book was set in the Roman Empire in two towns less than a day’s journey from Rome itself. And while we’ll never really know how Roman men (and Thracian men, for one of the heroes) examined and understood their own emotions or experienced falling in love with each other, I think the story did a relatively good job of keeping me aware of the fact that it was set in a foreign and historical environment, while still allowing me to relate to the characters enough to root for them.

Roman-set m/m books must be fun, to my mind, precisely because of the foreignness of the setting and the differing attitudes to m/m sexual interaction. Men were allowed to be together in Rome, even encouraged. (Whether they were allowed to fall in love with each other and eschew women as these men do is another question that I don’t know the answer to.) But the setting allows the external “closet”-type conflict in this book to be new, different, and interesting: the Roman nobleman is a sexual bottom and the gladiator slave is the sexual top, a switch in acceptable positions that could cost the slave his life if discovered.

Anyway…plot! Caelius has unexpectedly inherited his uncle’s estate, which he has come to inspect. The estate comes with a ludus: a stable of gladiators, all of whom are slaves. (I have not watched any of the Ancient Greece/Rome movies or TV shows, by the way, so I have no idea how influenced by them this book might have been.) Caelius immediately has the hots for Argon, the gladiator least devastated by the neglect of Caelius’ uncle. Little does he know that Argon is really Gaidres, a Thracian who has sworn to wipe out the line of the man who enslaved him and killed his lover (ie: Caelius’s uncle and male line, including Caelius, of course). Caelius, oblivious to Gaidres’ hatred for a while, brings him to his bed, shocking Gaedres by insisting that Gaidres top him — indeed, dominate him — in bed.

While the two men take tentative steps into a relationship, Caelius rebuilds the ludus and retrains the men for the games, even though he hates the games himself. His wife (!) gives birth to a son, then conveniently dies. They travel back to Caelius’ home estate, and then come back again for the games. There’s a strange plot about a murderously jealous gladiator out for Gaedres’ blood. It all seemed a little scattered and episodic. The uncle’s neglect of the ludus seemed strange: why would he do this to such valuable slaves? When did it start? Why have a ludus at all if you’re going to destroy it? How long had the neglect been going on? Had Gaidres actually ever fought in the ring? And yes, we’re given the answers eventually, but every now and then they seemed to contradict each other or be thrown in without rhyme or reason. The wife was an example of the casual misogyny of the m/m genre: greedy, stupid, and weak. If you’re going to kill her off anyway, why couldn’t she have been honorable and interesting? The jealous gladiator plot was weak but it seemed necessary to the overall narrative and so shoehorned in haphazardly.

Honestly, it was a struggle to get past the first page:

It had been a month since his uncle had died without warning. Privately, Caelius was of the opinion that Craxus had choked on his own bile. With his death came a whole new host of decisions. Caelius hadn’t wanted a new villa, especially one that needed so much work, but it did have a ludus and he took that as a sign from the gods.

Of course, the ludus was far from the glorious ones he had seen at other estates. What remained to be seen was how much work it would take to make it and the fighters ready for a grand show. He did not care for the games. Many powerful Romans did, however, and if he wanted to further his political career, what better way than to become a patron of their favorite pastime?

“Felix.” Caelius turned to his personal scribe and lowered his voice. “Spare no expense on the renovations. I want no problems later that we could have anticipated now.”

“I will see to it myself, Dominus. It doesn’t appear as if much has been done before our arrival,” Felix murmured for Caelius’s ears alone. “I examined the ludus as the men gathered in the courtyard.”

“I wish to see for myself before I make any decisions.”

A new host of decisions? Why new? A sign of the gods…about what? Dunno. Why should anything have been done before their arrival? And it would seem that he has already made a decision if he’s saying “spare no expense.” Why are they lowering their voices? Who is trying/able to overhear them? I was not impressed.

This type of inconsistency happened throughout the book. For example, Caelius tells Gaidres that “Men of standing do not have the strength and the physical stature I desire. Most go soft well before their time.” But earlier he had thought, “Normally his lovers were the complete opposite of Argon, pampered slaves skilled in giving and receiving pleasure. Lying down with Argon would be akin to bedding a lion and that only made the desire pool in his belly even more. He suddenly found such fire to be a delicious spice.” Okay, so nobles get fat and maybe slaves don’t, I get that. But there’s the implication that the slaves he’s used to are not of the same physical stature and power as Gaidres…except when they are. Hur?

There was a lot of this casual confusion and, more importantly, a lot of both characters feeling some emotion because it was necessary to the plot, rather than organic to his character. In fact, sometimes the emotions seemed to contradict his character altogether — like Gaidres unexpectedly spilling his guts (in INdirect dialogue — why?) to Caelius about his pre-slave life and love. It needed to happen then, so Gaidres finds himself doing it, even though he doesn’t know why. There was a lot of “he didn’t know why he felt this way” going on for both men (although Caelius was the more consistent character), which created an emotional separation for me from the men. I was hyper-aware of reading about characters who were at the mercy of their writer(s), rather than reading about people acting in ways that were true to their personalities.

However, I persevered. And in the end, I’m glad I did. Somehow, this book was a very compelling read. I know this review has been nothing but picky picky picky, but I really did enjoy the story despite having to ignore the pickypickypicky as I read. The conflict between the characters was not quickly solvable, the interaction between them was hot as anything, and the sex was really really hot:

Caelius’s hands curled on the wall, his cheek pressed against the cool stone as Gaidres’s tongue drove into him. He moaned his lover’s name, crying out again as Gaidres’s tongue left him, leaving him aching and empty. A rough nip on the cheek of his ass sent a shudder through him. “Gaidres…Gaidres, please.”

“What do you beg for, Caelius?”

Caelius trembled at the sound of his name on Gaidres’s lips in that low growl. He sagged against the wall, looking over his shoulder at his lover. “For you. For whatever you would have me say.”

He sank down onto his knees, twisting to face Gaidres. The raw desire on his face made Caelius’s heart pound faster. “Please, Gaidres.” He wet his lips. “I beg you, let me touch you. Let me feel you inside of me. Would you have me crawl? I’d do it. Would you have me scream your name? Whatever you desire.”

Gaidres groaned, leaning in, lips so close but never touching Caelius’s. “I would have you crawl, Caelius.” His voice was a rough whisper that sent shivers dragging down Caelius’s spine. “But I will make you scream whether you wish to or not.”

I stayed up late reading it, wanting to see how it ended, how Caelius and Gaidres found their way to each other. And although I was disappointed with the “OMG, I think you’re dead, which only makes me realize how much I adore you so please be alive — yay you’re alive!” ending, which to me seems like lazy writing (or maybe just bullheaded characters?), I still enjoyed the story overall. Maybe that was because of the unusual setting and the consistent historical feel, but I think it was also because the characters, however inconsistent in details, were compelling overall.

Grade: C+

Best regards,
-Sarah

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Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

15 Comments

  1. Marta
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 17:20:43

    I read the book but I found difficult to go through it. As an historian I was completely put off by the historic inaccuracies and I would roll my eyes when the wrong Latin terms were used.
    I know they are only details but I think there was a confusion between moral values in Rome, Greece and the Mediterrenean (huge difference at the time!) and between Roman citizen and foreign slaves.

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  2. Sarah Frantz
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 17:24:36

    @Marta: Yeah, I knew I didn’t know enough to recognize the inaccuracies. And I certainly don’t know any Latin, so didn’t notice any problems there. I know that’s the problem with any research (just read a book about a college professor that got my back up a bit), but setting a book somewhere/when so foreign, I think you’re inviting problems like this.

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  3. Klio
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 17:36:57

    I’m with Marta in that I find it hard to handle historical inaccuracies…not so much the wrong sort of phrasing or a modern figure of speech or a slight goof up in timeline, or having everybody going to gladiator orgies. But wrong assumptions about mores, attitudes, and behaviour make me… well, make me want to write a book where I can tell a story my way. And hope I manage to get it right. Or at least not so wrong that it ruins the story.

    But I do have to say that I don’t think writing about the ancient world is any more inviting problems than writing about Regency England or 1920s Berlin :) Ancient Rome really isn’t that bizarrely different in mindset that it’s unfathomable. It’s all about being willing to do the proper research, understand the different cultural eras of its history, and getting into the mindset of the time and place. Or at least being convincing enough that the readers don’t toss their Nooks out the window.

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  4. Klio
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 17:40:11

    Uhm ::ahem:: the cover seems kinda hawt-stuff, though. All dark and brooding and muscly.

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  5. Mandi
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 17:40:15

    I liked the beginning but started to lose interest around the halfway point. But still found the setting to be a fun one to read.

    And the romance scenes were pretty hot :)

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  6. Jeannie
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 17:41:15

    Or someone like me who sucked at history would probably be oblivious. I’d been considering it, now I want it.

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  7. orannia
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 20:17:48

    Lovely review Sarah. I especially liked:

    “OMG, I think you’re dead, which only makes me realize how much I adore you so please be alive — yay you’re alive!”

    LOL!

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  8. Merian
    Sep 19, 2011 @ 23:30:30

    I think the issues you point out Sarah, are why I like my older civilisation stories to be fantasy – that way the wrong terms or inaccuracies don’t matter they are just world building.

    Having said that though,I also agree with Klio’s comment about doing the proper research because these settings and the mindset are doable. Steven Saylor’s mysteries the ‘Roma Sub Rosa’ series are on example. The novels’ hero is a detective named Gordianus the Finder, active during the time of Sulla, Cicero, Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra. Steven Pressfield’s ‘Gates of Fire’ is another one – this is about the battle of Marathon from the Spartan perspective.

    I wonder sometimes though whether we have a limit to our imaginations in the sense of understanding cultural mores and mindsets that are ‘other’ – this is not just about a split between past and present but simply abut people who are not like us. Bizarrely for books that are about reltionships, is this a particular problem for romance with the notion of placeholder heroine/protagonists? In the end do people want to read about those like them more than they want to experience other worlds and other ways of being?

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  9. cate
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 05:06:08

    I can’t speak for the reviewed book, but I can recommend Lindsay Davis’ Falco novels as a superb example of well written historicals (they’re mysteries if you’re unfamiliar with her books.)

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  10. A Kimlin
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 05:44:26

    I’m also an archaeologist I have always lived in areas where Romans have been so I find them intriguing. To be honest because of my background I tend to seperate fiction from history books otherwise I would always be finding inaccuracies and ruin them for myself.Books that are too accurate tend to be dull – which this certainly is not….

    The writing was sexy, the characters well drawn, and I enjoyed the story. What I found very compelling was the style which feels like something Pliny or Plutarch would write.

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  11. Jane Lovering
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 09:34:44

    @Merian, this is precisely why I have such problems with ‘alien’ romances. We simply cannot get our heads around species that behave/love/breed in ways hugely different to our own, so end up with ‘humans with tails’ types of so-called aliens. Perhaps authors should branch out, push the boundaries of culture and understanding; that way we’d find out whether the ‘placeholder’ was really what the reader read for, or whether readers really *do* want to go somewhere else with their imaginations?

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  12. k reads
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 10:55:03

    Is this book a mistorical then?

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  13. Klio
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 12:23:39

    @A Kimlin: Friends have wondered how I could love things like Xena Warrior Princess and 1950s sword & sandals movies, but I can get into the spirit of fun.

    I’d like to think a romance set in, say, modern-day Mumbai wouldn’t be too alien for readers with no cultural connection. I was going to suggest that maybe (time) travel plots solve the problem by necessarily including a point of view familiar to the reader, but I guess that depends on how many points of similarity there would need to be to make the POV character “not other.”

    Maybe the fundamental point of similarity for this genre need be no more than “humans crave love.” The challenge to overcome on the route to relationship might be that the heroine isn’t accepted by high society; it might be that the sheik is forbidden to marry an outsider; it might be that society shames a man who is “submissive”; it might be that the green aliens can’t marry purple aliens because of the breakdown of the intergalactic peace treaty of Omicron Persei 8.

    Anyway. I’ll put in another vote for Lindsay Davis’s Falco books. She’s been criticised for modernisms, but I find her series to have a great deal of heart and humor, and even romance.

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  14. Klio
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 12:30:01

    Or I could change that to “sentient beings crave love.” And add, “even if they’re Spock or a vampire.”

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  15. Merrian
    Sep 20, 2011 @ 21:11:26

    I should also slap myself for inaccuracy the Pressfield book is about the Battle of Thermopylae not Marathon.

    @ K reads – I haven’t read the book but on this review I wouldn’t say it is a mistorical probably because my personal definition of mistorical is summed up by Maili’s comment on Sunita’s Vaucous Minx blog:

    “they involve the unquestioning reproduction of culturally loaded stereotypes”.

    ReplyReply

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