Sometimes when I read a book, I figure out right away that I’m in for something good. This was the exact feeling I had when I picked up The Gladiator by Carla Capshaw. I found this story of a former gladiator and his Christian slave very well-done; one would never guess it’s a debut novel. I picked it up on my own from the Harlequin site rather than having it assigned for review, but as I read it, I knew it would be one of those books I wanted people to know about.
The story opens shortly after Pelonia’s family has been attacked and killed while travelling to her cousin’s wedding in Rome. Only Pelonia and her uncle Marcus survive, and he soon shows his treacherous nature by selling Pelonia to a passing slaver. Pelonia is ultimately purchased by Caros Viriathos, a former slave who fought as a gladiator and eventually won his freedom. Though largely hardened to the world, he finds himself immediately moved by Pelonia and her plight for reasons he does not fully understand.
Caros learns early on that Pelonia is a Christian, but keeps her in his household rather then turning her over to the authorities for execution as he could have at that time. Pelonia, somewhat naive about her own situation and understandably resentful of her place as a household slave, often rebels against Caros in the beginning. Thankfully, her rebellious attitude shows itself in ways that make sense given who she is and when she lives – the lack of anachronistic curl-tossing feistiness makes Pelonia much more effective as a character. And Caros’ mixture of firm resolve with compassion in his dealings with Pelonia makes him a very appealing, if sometimes flawed, hero.
Though Caros treats Pelonia with some degree of understanding, she is still a slave and the change in her status chafes at her. In addition, having grown up in a Christian household, Pelonia had been sheltered from much of the non-Christian Roman world and the combination of culture shocks overwhelms her at times. Pelonia is an interesting character because she is one of the few I’ve seen who is a Christian deep into the core of her being. The author does not tell readers Pelonia is a Christian simply by labeling her as such or having her talk about church; she shows us with the interactions Pelonia has with other characters (including some rather unlikable ones) and by having Pelonia live as she proclaims to believe. Pelonia doesn’t preach a lot (good news for readers who prefer story to sermon), but she does put her beliefs into practice.
Almost as disturbing as her enslavement, Pelonia quickly realizes that Caros has a romantic interest in her. Given that Caros is not only a non-Christian, but a man who has fought and killed for sport as a gladiator, she cannot contemplate a romantic relationship with him. The two eventually reach an accord: Pelonia agrees not to try to escape captivity for 14 days and Caros agrees that he will let her talk about her religion. Caros is confident that by the end of the period he will be able to woo Pelonia into being his mistress, something Pelonia feels equally confident she will resist.
What happens here ends up being something that neither Caros nor Pelonia expects. Each has their view of the world and of the other person altered somewhat (albeit more drastically for one than for the other) in a series of scenes that are very touching to read. I appreciated very much that Caros and Pelonia are not super-enlightened 21st century characters in 1st century dress, but often sound like products of their society. The author sometimes takes liberties with her setting, but they often serve to make the story work better instead of turning the whole affair into mere wallpaper, so I found myself not minding these most of the time. The author also evokes the world of first-century Rome in sometimes gritty detail, an element I found compelling but which may not be for the squeamish.
My only major quibble with this book came from some of the bits of modern language that crept in. While the characters don’t seem very modern most of the time, every now and again someone would say something that just didn’t seem true to the setting (ex. “When she doesn’t have her nose in a scroll…”) and it would jerk me out of the story for a bit. In addition, toward the end, there are a few elements of the story that are a tad cheesy. Even as I recognized the too-pat, unrealistic quality of them, I also found them moving and sweet, so I didn’t mind at all. Extreme historical purists may differ with me, though.
Overall, I found The Gladiator a strong and compelling read. I loved the setting and the characters, and found the story very moving. The inspirational aspect of the story figures rather prominently and the author handles her theme so that it truly inspires rather than feeling preachy. I was often moved by this story, but never once had the sensation of being talked down to, which made this book quite a happy read for me. I can’t wait to read Carla Capshaw’s next book!
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.