Sand of the Arena by James Duffy

Book Review by Skarr

From the very first line in the action packed first book that author James Duffy crafted in this series on the gladiators of the empire, you are transported to a gory, violent world that was ancient Rome, particularly in the arenas that recreated much of the action that the common plebeians hungered for. Packed to the gills, these sand filled arenas provided most of the entertainment that the weary citizens of Rome looked for, a vicarious substitute that provided all the excitement, danger and blood in a relatively safe environment, except for the occasional riot or accident of fate, when wild animals were set loose into the spectator stands, claiming several innocent lives.

The protagonist of the novel, Quintus Honorius Romanus, is the son of a respectable knight. From a young age, his father encourages him to attend these games, despite the inevitable backlash the boy was sure to receive from his mother, for neglecting his studies to pursue such barbarous vices. Politically, the games were a way of gaining public popularity and acclaim, as every noble in Rome would at some point in his career become a sponsor or editor of games, a sure way of garnering the requisite number of votes required for the next elections, whether for aedile, praetor or a number of other administrative positions. This was a well recognized fact and even emperors took pains to curb the enthusiasm of these officials, by enforcing limits on the type, the size, the number and the overall amount that could be expended on these games, with the most expensive affairs being reserved solely for the Emperor himself.

As the first novel in a series, Sand of the Arena proceeds at a furious pace from the very first scenes, which are recreations of sea battles in the flooded arena, with spectators sitting on the edge of their seats, witnessing a very real re-enactment of the violent sea battles between pirates and the Roman fleet. The gory battles are then followed by a banquet hosted by the Emperor himself, Nero, the famous lover of the arts, who creates a specially designed tableau for his appearance, surrounded by the most beautiful nymphets and dancers, with one of them creating a memorable first impression for our young hero. Quintus, although of a tender age, has absorbed enough from his intent watching to not only memorize the various fighting moves of the gladiators but also criticize their very techniques, a fact that surprises his father’s friend. Little does one realize how this initial passion for the deadly games would prove to be a life saving crutch for Quintus later on, as the inevitable turns of fate carve out a different life for him, with treachery lurking in his very household.

Quintus has a competitor in his household, a slave who is of almost the same age and who watches his success with murderous rage within his heart. This, ultimately, proves to be his downfall, as he spirals downward from his status of young knight into a seemingly bottomless pit of despair. While it may seem certainly predictable that a youth of a similar age but in a less advantageous social position may seem overly jealous, vindictive and even a little extreme in his passions, the story takes many unusual twists and turns from this simple premise, a true credit to the ingenuity of the author. Everything that occurs flows naturally, starting from an ill fated voyage to what is now the United Kingdom today but Britannia to the ancient Romans, a mere province of the Empire. In an unexpected storm on their way across the channel, Quintus loses many who are near and dear to him, including a trusty guardian, an ex-gladiator who teaches him a lot of skills, lessons that prove invaluable to him, particularly in the arena, which is his ultimate destination. Unfortunately, the one who survives along with him is his life long nemesis, the slave who switches identities with him and craftily convinces Quintus’s uncle and aunt that it is he, the slave, who is the young master and not Quintus.

From there on, Quintus is exposed to daily degradation, filthy, menial tasks that his upbringing had not prepared him for. However, in him lives a warrior like spirit and although he could have taken a simple revenge on his former slave, he lets him go and voluntarily finds a provincial arena in Britannia, where he can pursue his true passion, to become a renowned gladiator in his own right. Quintus thrives in his element at last, as he is accepted by the lanista into the run down arena and even puts on a show at his very first games, which is presided over by the impostor himself, who has now regained power, even magisterial authority, by being aided and abetted by his own aunt. The corruption that women bring to the table is exploited well by the author in the character of the scheming aunt, the real brains behind the rise to power of the lowly slave, who revels in the authority he now commands. He is still a pusillanimous weakling, something that Quintus is well aware of, from his previous encounters with the slave who usurped his status and his real identity.

The rest of the story is fairly straightforward as it pursues Quintus in his new life, as an apprentice gladiator in the rural corners of the Empire, far from Rome and its grand arenas, which is the real place where our hero wishes to excel in, as he is consumed by the desire that possesses each gladiator – become the crowd’s favorite, their joy. It is this ambition alone that drives him, although I suspect, revenge is never too far his thoughts.

The inner courage and spirit he possesses drives him to excel in everything he takes up and Quintus is soon not only an excellent fighter, but a man to be feared, as he dreams up a new incarnation for himself in the arena, a figure of towering strength, with tattoos to match, called Taurus, symbolizing the power of the famed minotaur and the terror it drove into men’s hearts. Along the way, he meets up with a host of colorful characters including one very skilled hunter from Africa, a man with exceptional hunting skills and a beautiful, bare breasted warrior with a charm all her own, Amazonia, a fitting epithet for one with her talents and her beauty.

Soon, Quintus finds himself in Rome, confronting his old nemesis and it is not how the events play out which is interesting but in the manner in which this occurs, with many interesting sidelights, facets and details that bring to life all the various elements that make this such a thrilling novel to read. A word of caution to those attempting to read this novel for the first time or to those who are yet to really read a work of adventure – make sure you have plenty of time on your hands, as you will be sure to miss work or appointments. I could not put this one down from the moment I started and the action and story proceeds at a break neck pace, with nary a dull moment, as they say. At the end of the book, I felt a little dissatisfied but then, I realized that this is only the first installment and I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

Captivating and with colorful, accurate descriptions of the actual gladiatorial combat that must have occurred in those times, this novel is a must read for anyone who loves to read a good adventure story or a thriller in a historical setting. The fact that it is set in ancient Rome is actually irrelevant as there are all the classic elements to be found in this novel that ultimately, make up a great story – love, betrayal, passion, romance, action – this novel has it all. The fact that it is set in ancient Rome is a delightful plus and for people such as myself, who are extremely passionate about this period, I could not ask for anything more from this author. The period is described well and the author has obviously spent a lot of time researching the various gladiatorial techniques used, as well their fighting armor and equipment. There were quite a few things which I was not aware of and this proved very instructive and even educational, as I’m always looking to learn something new about ancient Rome.

The overall action in this novel is very cinematic and I’m sure someone in Hollywood will take note. I did enjoy “Gladiator” immensely, especially the fight scenes in the arena. However, they did not seem real and if you want realism and a sense of what it was truly like in those arenas, you must read this book. The author does not pull any punches and nor does he gloss over the barbarity and the brutality with which the gladiators were treated. Most of the gladiators lived under pretty harsh conditions and did undergo a daily dose of humiliation, as many, especially those who were recalcitrant, had little privacy and were under constant guard. However, there were those few, those exceptional fighters who were honored and revered by the public, with some of them leading fairly comfortable lives in later years, even marrying, buying a nice villa and so on. So, while it was not a level playing field by any means, there were opportunities to advance even in such a dangerously short lived profession, something that the author clearly highlights, in the character of his hero. In the end, the message is clear – everyone needs to have a goal, an ambition and if you have the passion and drive to succeed, you will do so, even the costs will be heavy. That message is borne out well by Quintus, as he overcomes the most adverse condition to finally triumph in his own manner, in the arena, on the Sand of the Arena.

One final comment is on the graphic scenes in the novel, some of which may be a little hot to handle for readers who are extremely sensitive. I did not find any of these to be more graphic than is necessary to convey the action and bring the scenes to life. The same may be said about the few sexual situations that are depicted. All of these scenes are necessary and flow seamlessly with the plot, without causing any undue distractions, a fault that is often the case in various other novels that I’ve read where these scenes detract from the main storyline. It is quite the opposite in this novel, where these scenes, I feel, actually enhance the book and make it seem more real, more contemporary, as we can then relate to the characters, even though they lived a couple of thousand years earlier. After all, human passions, ambitions, thoughts and other desires have remained relatively unchanged, despite thousands of years of progress, which is an incontrovertible fact that I have realized after researching the ancient period for some decades now.

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