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Given Ben Kane's tendency to write strong characters who rebel against their Roman leaders, it's perhaps slightly predictable that he should take on the story of Spartacus, who led a slaves' rebellion against Rome. This is, perhaps, the only thing you can say about Kane's writing that is predictable.
Returning to his home in Thrace after several years away fighting in the legions, Spartacus anticipates settling back into normal life and finding himself a wife. He soon discovers that nothing is the same as when he left. His King has been murdered and his likely replacement, Spartacus' father, has also been betrayed and murdered. Attempting a revolution against the new King, the man who murdered his father, Spartacus is betrayed and sold into slavery to fight as a gladiator.
A life of slavery doesn't suit Spartacus at all, having lived as a free man, so he sets about escaping. He quickly gathers a following and, despite another betrayal, this time he achieves his aim and sets up camp on top of Mount Vesuvius. The Roman Senate is predictably unhappy at this turn of events and sends an army after the escaped gladiator. Meanwhile, Spartacus is struggling with an influx of recruits and locked in a power struggle with some of the other former gladiators who had themselves built up a following in the ludus and weren't happy to serve under Spartacus.
With every book I've read of Ben Kane's, he's added something a little new, whilst still retaining all the parts I enjoyed from his previous books. What that means here is that he writes so vividly that you can almost feel yourself a part of the action, particularly in the battle scenes. His description of the whip that is about to be used to scourge Spartacus' back is so detailed that when it strikes, you can feel the damage it does. When a close friend runs onto a sword wielded by a Roman soldier, you can feel the physical impact of the blade, as well as the emotional one as Spartacus watches his friend's blood pour out of him.
Just thinking about these moments brings them back, such is the visual and emotional strength of Kane's writing. As ever, the physical descriptions of the characters aren't as detailed, only being drawn in basic terms, or highlighted features, but Kane's writing has never required the reader to be able to visualise the characters, only to feel alongside them. It doesn't matter what colour Phortis' hair is, for example, because when he is bitten by a snake thrown at him by Spartacus' wife Ariadne, you can visualise his face turning purple, regardless of whether Kane has told you which shade of purple you should be imagining.
What is different this time around is the cast of characters. For the first time in Kane's writing, there is really only one major character. In previous works, whilst there have always been strong leaders and characters who stick out, there is frequently a large cast and the story moves between them. Here, although there are significant other characters, this is really the story of Spartacus and Spartacus alone. There are very few scenes that aren't about him and in one that isn't, his presence is so keenly felt by the characters involved that he's there in spirit, if not in reality. Here again Kane's expertise comes to the fore, as I could feel his presence through the concerns of the characters. It's so well done that you barely notice when others fade into the background, as Kane has written such a strong character in Spartacus that he carries the novel as easily as he carries the burden of leadership.
Once again, through the midst of battle and the horrors it contains, Kane at least emerges triumphant. Although there may be limited evidence, history records the story of Spartacus as enough to spark some kind of interest, but in the hands of Ben Kane, that spark becomes a fire that won't easily be stopped. As usual, the only disappointment to be found in a Ben Kane novel is that it ends. There is certainly no disappointment in the prices you can find it for, with offers from 1p plus postage from the Amazon Marketplace or from £4.06 or £3.86 for a brand new paperback or Kindle copy from Amazon.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk