Sands of the Arena and Other Stories

Written by Ben Kane
Review by Kate Pettigrew

A novice gladiator fighting for his life before depraved emperor Caligula, a centurion unhappy in retirement, and Hannibal pondering attacking Rome—these are just some of the latest action-packed stories from respected Roman empire writer Ben Kane. Kane has long been thrilling readers with his novels, but this book consists of seven brilliantly written short stories.

The titular story (novel-length in itself), begun online during lockdown, involves Hibernian slave Midir, fighting in the arena’s burning sands before Caligula. It’s the longest at 192 pages, and Kane gives us plenty of blood, guts, drinking and swearing, with his usual verve and panache. We get three stories about centurion Tullus, starting with an unsettling visit to “The Shrine,” trying to keep new conscripts alive in “Eagles in the East” and leaving his understanding wife for a dangerous challenge in retirement in “Eagles in the Wilderness.” Hannibal considers war with Rome in “Good Omens,” and legionary Piso is celebrating payday, until it starts to go wrong in “The Arena.” Two men travel to the edge of the empire in “The March,” searching for a lost friend and to assuage past guilt.

Kane takes us from sweltering Italy and Spain to the cooler climes of Germany and eastern Europe and onto Indian plains. You can smell the streets, feel the sweat and are in those characters’ sometimes rotting sandals. Highly recommended. Put it on your Christmas list.