Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: "Blood Oath" and "Blood and Fire", Books I and II of the Gladiator School Young Adult Series by Dan Scott

A historical fiction review by © 2013

Book 1:  Blood Oath

Lucius, a 13-year-old son of a Roman senator, has just had his world turned upside down.  The emperor Vespasian has died and his successor, his oldest son, Titus, wants to sweep the Palatine clean of informers who capitalized on his father's preoccupation with treason by denouncing people, many innocent, as enemies of the state.  Unfortunately, one of the enemies of Lucius' father uses this change in administration to frame Quintus Valerius Aquila as the notorious informant "The Spectre".

Aquila must flee Rome before he is arrested, leaving Lucius, his older brother, Quintus, his younger sister Valeria and their mother adrift and alone in the wreckage that was once a comfortable and respected existence.  Aquila's brother Ravilla steps forward to "look after" the bereft family but his motives are soon suspect as he sells off all of his brother's assets and deposits the family in a tiny dank flat in the squalid Sburra district of Rome.

This scenario is actually quite historical.

"He [Titus] worked skilfully and specifically to rebut charges of cruelty, extravagance, self-indulgence, and greed, and he is credited with an improvement in public life.  The state of the sources obscures detail, but Titus' commonplace opening move, renunciation of treason trials as a remedy for slander, was reinforced by punishments." - Vespasian by Barbara Levick
The Roman emperor Titus ruled on two short
years from 79 - 81 AD.
 Photographed at the
Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy by
 © 2005.

Lucius is certain his father is innocent but his older brother Quintus rails against Aquila for deserting the family and committing such dastardly acts.  Left with barely enough to eat, Quintus decides to take the "blood oath" of a gladiator and join his uncle's gladiator school. There he hopes to earn enough money to restore at least some dignity to the rest of his family.  Concerned for his brother's safety and suspicious of his uncle's motives, Lucius asks for a job at the gladiator school doing whatever errands are assigned by either his uncle or the lanista, Crassus.
Quintus trains as a retiarius or net man fighting with only
 a weighted net, trident and straight-bladed dagger.
His flared galerus (shoulder guard) often depicted
mythological scenes.
 Drawing courtesy of author .

As readers follow Lucius around the gladiator school each day, they learn about the type of weaponry used by the different types of gladiators, the food they eat, the brutal nature of their training and how matches are arranged and even financed.  The author uses footnotes to explain Latin words that are incorporated into the narrative or cultural practices that Lucius encounters.

Quintus is particularly gifted in the martial arts and is soon slated for his first official match.  But Lucius, aided by a young Egyptian slave girl, has discovered some very disturbing information about his uncle's business activities and a new red-haired gladiator seems to be watching Lucius' every move.  Lucius has also received secret messages from his father asking for Lucius' help in finding evidence to clear his father of the false informing charges.  So the tension builds as the story progresses, keeping readers engrossed in the lives of the characters and interested to learn who betrayed Lucius' father and whether Quintus will succeed as a retiarius or meet an early death.

Scott does a good job of creating the primary characters and bringing the world of a 1st century gladiator vibrantly to life for young readers without glamorizing it.  The gladiatorial combat scenes are exciting without being overly graphic.  In keeping with a young adult novel, physical relationships between male and female characters are omitted and  the friendship between Lucius and the young female slave, Isadora, is kept strictly platonic.

But there is enough suspense to propel the story nicely and instructive material is woven expertly into the narrative so learning occurs naturally through the main character's observations without extended dull or tedious explanatory passages.

Although Lucius will discover some evidence to point to a primary suspect in his father's disappearance, his father's fate is not resolved in this first book, setting up its sequel(s).

Book II: Blood and Fire:

Lucius and Quintus find themselves ordered to accompany a troup of the school's gladiators  to Pompeii to compete in a spectacle there just a few days before the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  Quintus has survived his first official combat and is now a veteranus so he will face off against a local gladiator from Pompeii. But Lucius is puzzled why he was asked to go with the troupe, especially since he finds little to do upon arriving at the gladiator barracks in Pompeii.

Lucius follows his brother to town and there meets a strange little girl with silvery blue eyes who tells him the city will be destroyed soon by fire and ash.  She is so convincing Lucius is troubled by her prophecy.  When he returns to the barracks, the lanista, Crassus, asks him to deliver a message to the sponsor of the games and see if Lucius can find out what kind of a man this Marcus Nemonius Valens is.  Crassus wonders if Valens will be merciful to the gladiators or if he will be the kind of man who will give in to a blood-thirsty crowd and order their death.

When Lucius arrives at the sponsor's villa, he is ushered inside and Valens appears to take a personal interest in him.  Valens also claims to have known Lucius' father and speaks kindly of him so Lucius thinks he has found a potential ally in his quest to prove his father's innocence.  Valens asks Lucius to come to work for him for a few days if the lanista does not need him and Crassus readily agrees since it will give Lucius a chance to observe the man more closely before the games.

But things are not at all what they seem and, before long, we find both Lucius and Quintus fighting for their lives in  a city rife with blackmail and murder overshadowed by loud rumblings from nearby Vesuvius.

Since much of this second novel takes place in the villa of Valens, young readers will learn about Roman patron-client relationships, elite Roman banqueting and the types of food prepared for it, Roman heating systems and aristocratic living spaces.  Two of Valens' frequent visitors are competing for a public office so readers will also learn of the generally corrupt nature of Roman politics.
The palaestra or athletic training field adjacent to the amphitheater in Pompeii.
Photographed in the archaeological site of Pompeii by  © 2007.

Pompeii itself is accurately described as best as I can remember having been fortunate enough to have visited the archaeological site twice.  It is also portrayed as a rough-and-tumble almost "frontier" town and this too is accurate.  For years I thought Pompeii was more sophisticated than Herculaneum but discovered it was just the opposite after studying books written by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill who oversees excavations at Herculaneum.

Scott has also obviously carefully researched the stages of the Vesuvian eruption and expertly worked them into the plot line.  Once more suspense propels the narrative and narrow escapes should keep young readers turning the pages eagerly.

The next installment in this series is due to be published shortly and I look forward to reviewing it as well.

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