The Gladiator's Honor
There’s something so thrilling about reading a really good debut novel and, while Michelle Styles’ debut is not perfect, there is something quite compelling about it. The setting is one not often seen in historical romance and she manages to create characters who are strong without coming off like 21st century people in fancy dress. With an interesting story culminating in a grand over-the-top yet moving ending, this book definitely signals an author to watch.
Julia Antonia, the daughter of a patrician family, has recently moved home following a divorce. Though she has friends in Rome and is close to her father, her stepmother’s social climbing ways weary her. In addition, her father’s position and the scandal of her own divorce constrain Julia’s behavior. It is clear from the reactions of other characters around her that she must be above reproach if she has any hope of ever making another match.
Into Julia’s sheltered if slightly dull existence stumbles the gladiator Valens following a chance encounter at the baths. The great gladiatorial games in honor of the funeral of Julius Caesar’s father are about to begin and Valens is in Rome to compete and, hopefully, win his freedom. Valens, like many of the other gladiators, has been ordered to board with a Roman family and in this case, Julia’s father, a fan of the games, has been given the honor of hosting this revered gladiator in his home. When Valens arrives at the house and sees Julia again, their chance encounter starts to show the promise of becoming something more.
Though quite touching in places, this is no easy whirlwind romance. Ancient Romans loved watching gladiators fight, but the fighters themselves lived their lives removed from polite society. No Roman lady could have an open relationship with a gladiator and hope to maintain her reputation, and Styles does not gloss over this reality. Though Valens and Julia are drawn to each other, each tries earnestly to fight the attraction.
Watching Valens and Julia find their way to each other can be thrilling, exasperating, and sometimes filled with moments you simply want to savor. However, those with a low tolerance for overblown prose may find it a touch wearisome. Styles’ writing is strong for the most part, but she does resort to phrases such as “a whiff of scandal clinging to her stola” often enough to give the story a slightly lavender hue. The book is not loaded with purple prose like this by any means, but there is just enough to give it a slightly old-fashioned feel. I rather enjoyed the style for the most part, but I mention it here because I know that there are those who enjoy this more than others.
So, with all of its obvious strong points, why is this tale not quite a keeper? Well, for me it just lacks that certain almost indefinable something that makes a book a complete success for me. In this case, while this book contains some wonderful scenes (including a grand finale that I will not spoil other than to say it is thrilling), the middle does drag ever so slightly in a few places. As a result, it takes the reader longer than it should to get into the heads and hearts of the characters.
Still, even with its weak points, Styles’ Rome is a place I am glad to have visited. This is the type of book where most readers will be able to guess what happens next, but it is so interesting that one keeps turning the pages at a fast clip because one wants to see it all actually happening. With such a promising debut, I cannot wait to see what this author will do next.