In the first century AD, a 19-year-old Spartan, Lysandra, is enslaved after being the sole survivor of a shipwreck. In Sparta, she was raised to be a warrior-priestess. The Romans force her to become a gladiatrix. She undergoes brutal training in a school for women gladiators, finds a female lover there, and is sent to live or die in the arena.
In fact, as we learn from the Author’s Notes, there actually were women gladiators in ancient Rome. The gladiatorial combats seem historically accurate and believable, and the book is full of well-described action scenes. Lysandra’s struggle to survive at first kept me quickly turning the pages. However, despite the fact that Howard Fast’s Spartacus is one of my favorite novels and I’m a fan of the movie Gladiator, my interest dipped by the middle of this book. My problem, I think, was mainly with Lysandra as a protagonist. For one thing, she lacks a fully fleshed-out past. The warrior-priestesses of Sparta never existed. Novelists have made wilder flights of fancy than this, and those come vividly to life for the reader, but here we have perfunctory back-story devised to explain Lysandra’s fighting spirit. Despite her bravery, I found it hard to care about her. At the beginning of this novel she is credulous and arrogant, and, as the story goes on, though she suffers, she does not change much. None of the characters has much depth.
Some readers may be put off by this novel’s explicit lesbian sex or a truly savage heterosexual rape scene, but neither goes beyond the bounds of other recent fiction. If you want action packed entertainment with a dash of historical realism, you may enjoy this book.