Mask of the Gladiator
Since I like to try historicals with unusual settings or characters, Mask of the Gladiator caught my eye as soon as I spied it on the publisher’s website. The dramatic historical events and tensions of Caligula’s Rome could make for quite a story or, as here, it could make for a rather cursory outline of what could have been a cool story. The author obviously has a big, epic story to tell and the scanty wordcount of this brief tale didn’t even begin to do it justice.
Things open dramatically as widow Livia Duronius witnesses a gladiator’s bloody victory over a rival in the ring. It’s a scene that captures the gruesomeness of the combat as well as the fear that Caligula’s brutal and capricious rule has cast over the populace. We see Livia’s terror of the Emperor as well as the captivating hold that the victorious gladiator has over her. Even though she is a respectable widow, Livia still seeks out the powerful gladiator and they have an intense sexual encounter.
Unbeknownst to Livia, the gladiator is no slave but is in fact a Roman Senator, Titus Marius, fighting in disguise. Titus has a plan to free Rome from the tyranny of Caligula and his fight in the ring was only part of it. He remains focused on his plan, but the mysterious veiled widow he encountered at the Colesseum also lingers in his mind. Somehow he just knows that this encounter was special and that this lady was not simply one of the bored Roman matrons who regularly has affairs with gladiators for sport.
Livia’s first husband was a coward and she suffered because of it, so she is not enthusiastic when her uncle tells her she must marry again. Likewise, Titus is not necessarily thrilled about the prospect of marrying what he thinks will be a spoiled Roman widow, but in order to further his cause, he’ll do it. Readers nowhere will be surprised to learn that these events will set in motion everything necessary for Livia and Titus to find out the truth about one another and fall in love. And it’s a love story that has a dramatic backdrop and a good setup. However, this short story just does not give the characters or the plot adequate time to develop.
As I read through the story, I felt like I was reading an outline. For example, we hear about Livia’s first husband being a coward but we don’t get much detail on that part of the story. And we learn something of Titus Marius’ plot, but not nearly enough to really flesh out what’s going on or to get a good feel for the court intrigue. While many readers of historicals do not care for infodumps, this story goes a little too far in the opposite direction and lets us have only a bare minimum of background details. As readers, we see the Colosseum, hear a little bit about Roman government, figure out that Caligula’s a dangerous whacko, and that he poses some kind of danger to Livia. Beyond that, I was trying to remember all I had read elsewhere on Roman history so that I could mentally fill in the gaps in the historical world-building.
And then there’s the romance. Livia and Titus’ first encounter is pretty dramatic, but after that the plot seemed to speed up rapidly and to rely heavily on readers being able to take it for granted that these two just developed deep feelings for one another almost instantly. The big reveal of identities and the actual falling in love part of the romance all took place way too quickly. When I reached the end of the story, all I could think was, “This is it?” Both the background story and the romance had interesting elements to them, but both needed more development in order to really work.
I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.