The Deadliest Sport
In 1st-century Alexandria, Miriam bat Isaac is a dutiful Jewish daughter, running her late father’s business, whose twin brother Binyamin went off ten years before to become a gladiator in Rome. When he returns home, seeking funding for a ludus, or gladiator training center, of his own, she refuses to give him the money. She also realizes she must secure the will of her father’s business partner Amram—her own benefactor—against Binyamin’s arrogant efforts to get at the fortune. Their sibling relationship is part nostalgic obligation and part resentful rivalry. It unfolds as Miriam works to ensure the physical integrity of the will and investigates the fates of those connected to her benefactor.
Her search allows the novel to range across the ancient city, showing a vivid cross-section of its society. The Deadliest Sport is a densely descriptive novel, full of sensory detail. Miriam and Binyamin’s first-person accounts are handled well enough. But most of the exposition is put into the mouths of the characters in conversation.
In the end, neither Miriam nor her arrogant brother were made compelling enough to hold my interest. Some people dislike characters as unpleasant as Binyamin ben Isaac, but I love them if they develop and reveal depth. Binyamin remained a one-note caricature, even in his own words. Those readers looking for fiction set in this fascinating era should look for other novels that are executed better.