This was my first time reading a fictional story set in the time of the Roman Empire which was the biggest draw when I chose this book. However, once I started reading, I discovered that setting historical backdrop aside- which was fabulous by the way- I found the characters and intrigues that went on so fascinating that I couldn’t put the thing down once it got started.
The story is Anazar’s and he tells it well. It begins when Anazar is taking his punishment at a whipping post for showing mercy during a particular event in the circus (outdoor coliseum-like theater/sports arena) which was like a play pageant in which the killings are real. He knows the danger now of being thought weak and a coward. His owner gives him one opportunity to avoid certain death working the mines. He is being leased out to another Roman to train his bevy of gladiatrixes for the games.
Anazar arrives in the household of Lucius Marianus to discover that he has his work cut out for him with the women warriors and that he is caught up in a tangle between the two brothers Marianus. An aborted murder attempt against the younger brother Felix doesn’t even tell him who the real possible murder victim is and if he doesn’t figure out who to trust, he might be next. But the intrigue soon leads him to realize that things can get even more complicated than that. I don’t want to spoil it so I’m being purposefully vague about things.
It really was a doozy of a plot. This is not a dry historical. In fact, this plot rivals many of the current day thrillers while still delivering the wealth of colorful and exciting detail of what it was like to live in the early days of the Roman Empire as a gladiator slave trying to stay alive and keep alive his hope of freedom. Following along as Anazar’s shadow as he changes roles from fighter to trainer where he must keep his wits about him at all times sacrificing so many things that a free person takes for granted and then having to tread carefully when his master, his master’s wife and his master’s brother all seem to be pulling at him in three directions at the same time, was heady stuff to read. The romance is secondary for much of the book and though I saw it coming it still managed to take me by surprise in some ways.
The characters made a good book turn out even better. Anazar was an impressive hero and I loved his voice and his thoughts throughout the story. He sees things so well that I didn’t miss having other people’s perspectives. He’s great hero material. I can’t imagine the strength of body and mind it took to do what he did going from free man of the desert to gladiator who is just expensive property at best and can only look forward to death as an entertainment for the Romans. After years of living a harsh life that turns most men into brutes, he still manages to have a heart of compassion and a conscience even though he must be careful to guard these ‘weaknesses’ closely.
The secondary characters manage to convey ambivalent feelings in that just when you want to trust or mistrust them you find that something happens to change your mind which kept things rather exciting throughout the story. Its only pretty much in the end that it becomes clear who’s up to what.
So yes, this was a wonderful read that I can recommend to those who enjoy m/m historicals or intrigues with a little romance tossed in.
Thank you to Net Galley for providing the copy for review purposes.