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Roman history is something I find of great interest; however non-fiction books covering this genre can tend to be a little heavy going with lots of dates, events and persons being covered sometimes making them read like the books I used to dread at school. Despite the enjoyment I actually get learning from these 100% factual reads I sometimes fancy something just a little less heavy going. Therefore the plethora of fiction books that have been released recently covering this period of time due to the general public's interest, more than likely influenced by recent television series have provided me with a great source of reading material.
When I saw that this release from Ben Kane covering the legendary story of Spartacus the slave warrior I couldn't help but pick up the first installment titled Spartacus - The Gladiator. I had previously read a few of Ben Kane's publications and thoroughly enjoyed them, so a book from said author covering one of my favorite historical figures was an instant hit with me before I had even opened the cover.
As per usual I managed to pick this book up on offer from my favorite supermarket when it comes to book shopping so managed to get it as part of a 2 for £7 special, in my eyes a great bargain for a book I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy, and a great saving on the RRP of £6.99.
I'm sure many people are in the same boat as me and have heard of and maybe even have read quite a bit about Spartacus or more than likely seen the recent run of series covering Spartacus on TV. The only thing I was slightly concerned about with this book, as I am fairly well read on my Roman history was the fact it would be similar to the TV series and focus on the action rather than the facts. However I am glad to say that soon into the book despite a few fictional characters and events to gel the story together along the way in order to make it read well a great deal of this fictional book is actually based upon pure fact.
The story starts with a warrior returning home to Thrace (a land to the north of Greece) after escaping fighting for the Roman Legions after a full decade, and looking to slow his pace of life and live quietly for a while before uniting the Thracian tribes to rise up against his sworn enemy the Romans that he had been fighting for all this while. It is not long before we find out that this warrior that has now managed to make it back to his homeland goes by the name of Spartacus. Unfortunately not everything goes to plan once he returns to his homeland and a Dionysian (Dionysus - one of many gods worshipped at this time) priestess named Ariadne catches his attention. Unfortunately the new Thracian king had also taken an interest in Ariadne and does not hesitate when an opportunity arises to sell Spartacus straight back to the enemy he has sworn to destroy when a Roman slave trader offers to purchase him.
This is where the story really kicks off with Ariadne refusing to be separated from Spartacus, and the greedy slave trader being happy to take her. Spartacus and Ariadne are bound for the famous land of Capua were Spartacus will be trained as a gladiator to fight for the sake entertainment in the Roman arenas. It is here that he meets a man by the name of Carbo who is actually a volunteer to the gladiator school (ludus) trying to make a name and riches for himself, despite the fact that Spartacus finds it hard to figure out Carbo's reasons for being at the ludus he wins Spartacus' trust by saving Ariadne's life. The other person Spartacus manages to befriend is Crixus the most successful, admired and feared gladiator in the ludus. It's the alliance of these people that leads to a plan being hatched to escape the ludus although nobody is sure if it is possible or what will happen even if they do manage to escape.
Spartacus manages to escape from the ludus along with many other gladiators sympathetic to his plight as well as Ariadne, and they take cover in the mountains whilst trying to put together the basis of a slave army powerful enough to defend themselves from the mighty Romans. Naturally Spartacus takes the lead of this army but will his efforts be enough, or will his rebellion be crushed by Roman forces? This is the main storyline of Spartacus - The Gladiator along with the friendships previously mentioned and his relationship with Ariadne providing surprisingly welcome side-tracks from the main story.
This book is as you may expect from something set around an uprising in Rome a bit on the blood-thirsty side with ransacking of towns, rape and pillage being common place throughout the book. Although this may not be everybody's cup of tea this is most certainly an accurate description of the times according to historical records so I feel only helps to add to the feeling of the reality of the history in this fictional publication.
I feel that the main characters profiles are very well put together and the relationships between these characters are also very well built upon and read very naturally. This coupled with the great descriptions of the surrounding lands and the battles that commence, means that it isn't difficult with just a little imagination for the reader to close their eyes and picture themselves standing amongst great masses of Roman troops or Spartacus' slave army. I feel that Ben Kane does an excellent job of bringing this world of 2000 years ago quite literally to life in a way that non-fiction books cannot manage due to the lack of historical information surrounding Spartacus.
In my opinion I feel that Ben Kane manages to wrap everything up and end the book at the right point, and even includes the first chapter of the second book which was a great tease as I finished reading this book a month before the second book was released. It was with a little more than a hint of excitement (sad as it sounds but that's how much I rate these books) that I awaited the release date and hurried out to purchase the second half of this story, Spartacus - Rebellion, and have recently reread both books the second of which I shall be reviewing soon.
I feel that Ben Kane has done an absolutely brilliant job of filling in the blanks and making an absolutely brilliant story out of the patchy history that surrounds Spartacus, his allies and the slave army they manage to raise. Ben Kane admits himself that he has used a bit of artistic license throughout the book, but includes a section at the end which explains his reasons for this. I feel that this finishes off the book in a great way as it enables the reader to separate fact from fiction and makes it a great basis for those just getting interested in Roman history without boring them to tears with facts and figures. I also think that Ben Kane has managed what many other authors do not when trying to cover such a legendary charcater such as Spartacus which is to tell a great story without it getting unbeliveable, with even the seemingly indestructable Spartacus having a softer side that shines through.
Overall this was a great read and despite being easy going it doesn't leave the reader feeling patronized as a lot of historically correct information is included. I would definitely recommend this book if you enjoy Roman history or even just looking for a book filled with a lot of great action and want to learn a little history along the way.
This book in case you haven't guessed already will be getting the full complement of 5/5 stars from me.
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