Russell Whitfield

Myrmidon Books, ISBN 978-1-905802-09-8. Edition reviewed: uncorrected advance review copy.

Set in Roman Asia Minor towards the end of the first century AD, Gladiatrix tells the story of Lysandra, a Spartan priestess of Athene who finds herself captured and enslaved as a gladiatrix (female gladiator) in the Roman arena.

Two characters are based on the two gladiatrices commemorated on a memorial stone discovered in Halicarnassus (in modern south-west Turkey) in the nineteenth century. Nothing is known of the two women depicted on the stone except their stage names - Amazona and Achillia - and the fact that they both survived and retired from the games. Gladiatrix imagines what their lives might have been like, and what extraordinary events might have led to their being honoured with this unique monument. You could say these two are archaeological characters, rather like the character 'Julia' in the novel of the same name who was based on a Roman burial discovered in London. All the other main characters are fictional. Two historical figures, the Roman governor of Asia, Julius Sextus Frontinus, and an up-and-coming senator called Trajanus (better known to history as Emperor Trajan) play secondary roles.

As the sole survivor of a shipwreck, Lysandra is captured by the servants of Lucius Balbus, owner of a ludus (school) for gladiatrices. Roman law means that Lysandra is now his property, like any other item salvaged from a shipwreck. Trained from childhood in the Spartan agoge, Lysandra is already expert with weapons and military tactics, and Balbus cannot believe his luck when she despatches her first arena opponent with consummate ease. But Lysandra's Spartan pride not only attracts powerful enemies in the ludus, it also threatens to destroy her ability to adapt to her new circumstances. The love she finds in her new life will bring her joy - but it will also force her to face her greatest challenge.

Right from the first scene, when we meet Lysandra fighting for her life in the arena without knowing who she is or how she came to be there, Gladiatrix is packed with action. The numerous blow-by-blow fight sequences are detailed, graphic and cinematic, transporting the reader to the hot sands of the Roman arena in all its drama and brutality. Readers who like Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow will find much to enjoy in Gladiatrix. Nor is the action confined to the arena - the tensions that develop between the characters add plenty of conflict to keep the plot barrelling along.

The closed world of the ludus is beautifully realised. Not only does the novel recreate the life and routine of a gladiator training school in loving detail, it also shows how the claustrophobic environment and the ever-present risk of death generate powerful emotional undercurrents. Professional rivalries, nationalistic hatreds, personal attractions and enmities are all writ large. For all her Spartan coolness, Lysandra finds herself inexorably drawn into a passionate whirlwind of love, jealousy, tragedy and revenge.

Lysandra is an intriguing central character. She frequently reflects on the superiority of her own intelligence, education and upbringing, and makes no secret of the fact that she considers everyone else her inferior. Several of the characters comment that the harsh upbringing of the Spartan agoge makes people hard, cold and lacking in imagination. Yet Lysandra is kind to a downtrodden slave girl, and her assumption of superiority is so sincere that it rather grows on you. It becomes endearing in a way, especially when the cannier characters such as Balbus and the priest Telemachus neatly outmanoeuvre her even as she is congratulating herself on her astuteness. Her physical prowess is extraordinary. When we first meet her, she is capable of decapitating an opponent with a single blow, and she very quickly becomes the leader of a group of gladiatrices on the strength of her martial ability. Not her interpersonal skills! Lysandra's skill and courage earn her respect, but her weakness is her complete inability to see other people's point of view, and that, combined with her startling tactlessness and her aloof pride bordering on arrogance, earns her some implacable enemies. Given that she manages to antagonise even the kindly trainer Catuvolcos, it isn't hard to understand why the sadistic Nastasen and the proud senior gladiatrix Sorina take such a bitter dislike to her.

The secondary characters are drawn as distinct individuals with their own hopes and fears. Shrewd Lucius Balbus has to strike a careful balance between pleasing his rich political patrons and turning a profit. The sympathetic Catuvolcos dreams of buying his freedom and settling down with his girl. The barbarian chieftain Sorina burns to gain her freedom in the arena and take vengeance on the Romans who captured her in battle, and the worldly priest Telemachus is all too aware of the need for donations to maintain his impoverished temple. Lysandra's fellow trainees are distinct individuals from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and all walks of life. The no-nonsense German warrior Hildreth, the raunchy Greek island girl-who-never-says-no Penelope (an inspired choice of name if ever there was one) and the gentle Athenian housewife Danae are drawn together by the training and the risk of death they all share.

The novel is written in straightforward modern English. Unfamiliar classical terms such as ludus, lanista and the numerous arena fighting styles are explained at first use, and can usually be worked out from context. Occasional modern expletives, explicit sex scenes and a brutal rape scene mean that Gladiatrix isn't a novel for the easily offended, but the subject matter and the opening chapter make this obvious in any case.

A useful author's note sets out the inspiration for the story and the boundaries between fact and fiction, and more information can be found on the author's website and the various sites linked from it. The intriguing Epilogue hints at a connection with Rome's troubles in Dacia, leaving the way open for a potential sequel.

Action-packed adventure full of love, hate and the thrills and spills of the arena.