Sand of the Arena

Written by James Duffy
Review by C.W. Gortner

It seems there’s a craze for everything Roman these days, and Sand of the Arena offers a compelling reason why. This book takes the infamous spectacles so glamorized by Hollywood and shows us the actual workings behind all the carnage and dust. Duffy’s research is prodigious, and his narrative is peppered with fascinating details, from the trapdoors and mechanical lifts used to transport wild animals into the amphitheatre to the different classes of gladiators, their fighting methods, and weaponry. His action sequences are also impressive, exciting, and, at moments, almost unbearable to read—in particular when describing the slaughter of lions, crocodiles, and other animals, not to mention human beings, in the name of entertainment. In a clever allusion to the modern world, he imbues his gladiators with the flashy showmanship, gargantuan musculature, and evocative pseudonyms we’ve come to associate with television wrestling matches, making the fighters larger than life whenever they step before the crowds.

Unfortunately, what works on the sand doesn’t work quite as well when it comes to the lead character and one important plotline. While the hero Quintus’s transformation from privileged patrician to prized taurine fighter captivates our imagination, Quintus’s conflict over the terrible fate thrust upon him lacks the fiery quest for retribution we would expect. This leaves us with a central figure whose overwhelming confidence and Zen-like acceptance makes us worry a little less for him than we otherwise might.

On the other hand, Duffy’s villains are delightfully drawn, depraved yet very human in their vulnerabilities, almost to the point of overshadowing the other characters. Still, Petra, the cranky overseer of the gladiatorial school, the female fighter Amazonia, and nimble African hunter Lindani are unforgettable, and the novel delivers best where it should: in the arena.