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REVIEW: The Gladiator’s Honor by Michelle Styles

Dear Mrs. Styles,

After years of Harlequin Historicals that made me think the only past acceptable for romance authors to write about was the Regency time frame, we finally (finally!) seem to be getting more of a range of eras. Praise Him (or Her, if that’s your preference) from whom all blessings flow. When I learned that there is a HH set in Caesar’s Rome and which has a fairly decent cover too, I was out the door to Waldenbooks.

Valens the Thracian is used to bored Roman matrons giving him the eye. So when a young woman makes eye contact with him at the baths, he assumes she wants an afternoon tumble. Julia Antonia didn’t realize that the curiously familiar man had any such ideas and quickly tries to set him straight. They part only to meet again when Valens arrives at her father’s house. To allay senatorial fears that he’s building a private army, Caesar has decided to house his gladiators amongst his clients and extended family and Valens has been quartered with the family of Julius Antonius.

Julia’s horrific former marriage has made her wary of a men in general and a second marriage in particular. But Valens appears to be a different kind of man, despite the fact that his life is one of violence and death. She feels safe with him yet both know that since Valens is a slave, any future they might wish for would be a scandal that would bring shame upon not only Julia but also her family. Their one chance lies in the great games being given by Caesar in honor of his father’s death. If Valens can earn his freedom, he might aspire to Julia’s hand despite the dishonor of his past life.

I like the fact that history is more than just wallpaper (or in this case a wall fresco) in the story. I do wish that you’d worked some of it in a bit more seamlessly though. Lots of facts are explained to the reader by having various characters spell them out to each other. It’s like me telling Jane, “I’m going to McDonalds, a restaurant which serves burgers, fries and milkshakes.” Jane already knows what McDonalds is and there’s no reason for me to tell her what she would already know.

Valens’ current life is also based on a big misunderstanding. One which he’s had plenty of time to rectify but which stubborn pride forbids. His will to live kept him alive when he was sold into slavery but now he’s too prideful to work out his problems and avoid the risk of dying in the arena? I was even more disbelieving after he met Julia and began to dream of marrying her.

I appreciate the fact that you haven’t made Julia a 21st century woman in a gown and stolla. Her past life and experiences influence how she acts now. She does grow in strength throughout the book and that growth ebbs and flows realistically rather than her turning into Wonder Woman all of a sudden. But she’s a bit more meek than I like my heroines. She might be an interesting character study but I just couldn’t warm to her. And I lost count of the number of times when she thought she should leave Valens’ presence but “couldn’t make her feet move.”

You do make your characters live by the rules and conventions of the day. Slavery and the games were facts of life and everyone accepts them. No one questions whether or not they should own slaves or worries about the effect of the violent games on Roman youth. I had to laugh at the fact that figurines of the famous gladiators were sold to the faithful just as action figures are made today. I guess some things never change.

While I enjoyed reading about something other than Regency Dukes who spy against Boney, I can’t really give this one more than a B-.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

6 Comments

  1. Jennie
    Sep 15, 2006 @ 12:10:42

    I’m glad to see a review of this, and happy to see you didn’t hate it. I will still have to read it, as I am slightly obsessed by ancient Rome. A B- isn’t so bad, right?

    Why aren’t more romances set in this time period? It’s fascinating!

  2. Jayne
    Sep 15, 2006 @ 14:37:59

    No, a B- isn’t bad. The plot is good, some characters are better than others but no one is horribly bad except the villain who was 2 dimensional. A lot of the lowered grade comes from writing tics and the bit I mentioned about working historical facts in a bit better. It’s still early days for Styles so I hope that these things will be worked out before her next book is published. I would definitely try it.

  3. Jayne
    Sep 15, 2006 @ 14:39:35

    I also thought the cover nice although the book mentions the hero having dark hair. Before I read it, I thought he might be a captured northern European or something.

  4. seton
    Sep 16, 2006 @ 11:10:10

    I agree that more romances should be set in ancient times.

    I was reading Kenyon’s NIGHT PLEASURES the other day and the flashback to Roman times was the best part of the book. If Kenyon wrote a romance set all in Roman Times, I would buy it in a NY minute

  5. Michelle Styles
    Sep 27, 2006 @ 03:52:55

    Dear Jayne,
    Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to write a review about Gladiator’s Honor. I am ALWAYS interested in reading what readers think about my work as reader feedback is a gift. And it is pleasant to get honest feedback. Constructive criticism is all.
    I understand your point about some of the history. It is a very difficult line to tread as author writing in an unfamiliar to the average romance reader time period as certain things needed to be explained. I loathe and distest glossaries. It is very much a question of where do you pitch it and how much history can you assume the average reader knows. Hopefully as time goes on, it will become more seamless.
    Harlequin have three other of my Roman set novels in production, but I don’t know the order that they will be released in the US. A Noble Captive will be released in Jan 07 in the UK. They are releasing Lyn Randall’s Warrior or Woman in Feb 07 which is also set in Rome. Lyn is another new author.
    Harlequin are very much committed to publishing new time periods alongside the old established ones.
    I am currently working on a Viking set one and then get to do a Victorian Christmas one for Harlequin, so I am under a tight deadline. Hence not seeing the review until this morning.
    You asked about the cover v. Valens’s hair colour in the book, mea culpa I am afriad. I think I ticked the wrong box on the Art Fact Sheet, because I was slightly surprised as well!
    Anyway, thank you again for the review. I do really appreciate finding out what readers think.
    All the best,
    Michelle Styles

  6. Jayne
    Oct 02, 2006 @ 05:07:23

    Michelle, thanks for stopping by and leaving comments. I can understand being under the gun to get your next committment finished. I wonder if your books will be released through Amazon.ca any earlier than the US releases? I will be watching for them and as I said, I definitely plan on reading your next one. Also, thanks for the information about Lyn Randall. I loves me Roman set books. ;)

    I do see your point re: how to work information into a book to inform those who don’t know without boring those who might know. I just recently watched the opening episodes of HBO’s miniseries “Rome” and thought their trick of including boxed information and the opportunity to stop the action and go to another screen for more information about certain aspects of Roman life was interesting and very informative. Of course, it wouldn’t work in books unless you want to include tons of footnotes!

    Best of luck with your upcoming books.

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