Roma Victrix by Russell Whitfield

Book Review by JGolomb

UNRV is a community of dedicated Roman and Ancient History enthusiasts. Our interests are as varied as the personalities we display in the forums. And while many of us consider ourselves to be amateur experts to one extent or another, only a handful can actually claim by profession or education to be ACTUAL experts. One who might consider himself both is author, and frequent UNRV contributor, Russell Whitfield whose "Roma Victrix" is a sequel to his wonderful debut novel, "Gladiatrix", published by Myrmidon books.

Whitfield returns to Ancient Rome in this very strong sword, sand and sandals epic. As in the original, Whitfield combines a steady diet of character depth with heaping spoonfuls of historical fact and fiction as well superb fight sequences, which together puts flesh on the bone of the lesser known, but historically-documented, female gladiator.

The core of Whitfield's sequel revolves around Lysandra and her gladiatrix alter-ego, Achillia, the Gladiatrix Prima in Asia Minor. After establishing herself as the best in the East, Lysandra builds a temple to Athene, the Greek Goddess to whom she's dedicated her life. Born in Sparta, Lysandra wears her heritage like a suit of virtually impenetrable armor. It provides her with motivation, pride, a religious foundation, and an emotional wall of protection. Lysandra is consistently grasping to hold onto her very strict and unemotional Spartan upbringing in the face of an emotional landscape of secondary characters, her own burgeoning battle with alcohol, and her exposure to the myriad of cultures throughout the Mediterranean.

Following a magnificent staged battle royale that pits Achillia as warrior-general, leading a phalanx in battle against Barbarians in a sweeping book-opening scene, Lysandra steps off the sand arena and into the marble temple as she builds a deiopolos to her Goddess Athene. A life of temple management and prayer makes her soft and she increasingly finds herself drawn to and controlled by wine. Her propensity to dabble in the Dionysian propels Lysandra down a path where she finds herself literally and figuratively lost.

Young Varia returns to play a key role in this book as Lysandra's protege. Despite her most Spartan emotionless ethic, Lysandra's overprotection and love of Varia pushes her away. Varia's departure and later reemergence provide the emotional force for the story while keeping the connective threads of the novel tied together. The first of two complementary parallel plot lines follows Ileana, better known as Aesalon Nocturna (Midnight Falcon), the Gladiatrix Prima of the Flavian Amphitheatre in Rome. Emperor Domitian requests the presence of Achillia, queen of the sands in Asia Minor, to fight Aesalon Nocturna, goddess of the sands in the Colosseum. Naturally, it's never a good idea to deny a request from the Emperor.

The other primary plot thread follows the reintroduction of Tribune Valerian in Dacia at the Battle of Tapae. The battle is magnificently drawn by author Whitfield who's at his best when describing military strategy, the mechanisms of war and fighting, and the actual fight scenes themselves. This Battle of Tapae goes horrendously wrong for the Romans as an entire legion and thousands of warriors are destroyed. Valerian, a practical and sound-minded lifer in the Roman army, is taken prisoner and, let's just say, not treated very well. He returns to Rome facing the brunt of the blame for the disaster in Dacia. He's a broken man. And while I don't want to give away a strong plot point, his redemption is one of the nicer aspects to this multi-threaded book.

Numerous other characters are introduced (or re-introduced from "Gladiatrix") throughout the story. Murco and Cappa are ex-Praetorian guards hired to watch over Lysandra as she travels to Rome. En route, they serve as the protective older brothers to a sister who's really in no need of protection and never accepts it anyway. Their roles are small, but their relationship with Lysandra is comfortable and the two bodyguards brought a smile to my face as they reappeared throughout the story. Also returning is Lysandra's spiritual guide in Telemachus, as well as a number of new gladiators and gladiatricies, and Lysandra's equally as arrogant Spartan countryman, the gladiator Kleandrias who becomes her trainer.

Whitfield has developed a strong story arc tracing Lysandra's fall from grace, while building tension and excitement that melds rhythmically with the sub stories of Ileana, Varia and Valerian. It's a very "Rocky"-themed story that provides the skeletal framework for the well-fleshed and muscled story.

For several segments in the last third of the book, Whitfield writes his scenes from multiple perspectives, with each character's narrative slightly overlapping anothers to provide differing angles and views of the same action. This very film-like structure is not easy to convey, but Whitfield handles it masterfully. Likewise, he does a terrific job quick-cutting between the two prima gladiatricies' ultimate training sequences that set up the much-anticipated battle at the Flavian Amphitheatre. The story's pace is torrid as each gladiatrix is pushed to her max in preparation for their Colosseum battle before Emperor Domitian.

Roman and Greek ideals of sexuality also play an important thematic role in "Roma Victrix". Female homosexuality, and male homosexuality to a lesser extent, are frequent topics of conversation. Lysandra has a passionate love affair with a fellow gladiatrix in the first book and her lovers' death plays an important role in Lysandra's emotional makeup. In addition to the obligatory amount of well-oiled, sweating and topless gladiatricies, Whitfield has written an intensely erotic scene with two female and two male gladiators (I'll not give away who exactly), as well as a rather gruesome rape scene which becomes an important event throughout the story. Is it overdone? Not in my opinion.

Whitfield's greatest triumph in both of his books is in his ability to differentiate the military and gladiatorial battles. It's difficult to create a fight that makes sense, reads realistically and feels as bone crunching and sword slicing as one might imagine the real thing. It takes unique talent to craft richly textured and believable fight and combat scenes across a 400+ page landscape and have each feel as unique as the first.

Russell Whitfield has created a realistic and engaging re-creation of the ancient Roman Empire. He's done so by developing interesting characters wrapped around a multi-threaded story that effectively brings the reader into the world of Gladiators, Gladiatricies, and Roman politics and war. Could anyone argue that those are the key ingredients that drive the world's ongoing fascination with the historic world that we love?

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Union Jack Roma Victrix for the UK