My Spartacus: Swords and Ashes is now available in Hungarian, and has received an enthusiastic and perceptive review that singles out the character interaction between the leads, the prophecies of later events, the cameo by Cicero and the use of Latin. Also man-on-man action in its historical context, so that’s nice.
Steve Donoghue at Open Letters reviews my novel Swords and Ashes from a classical perspective, suggesting that the book is loaded with hidden allusions to ancient authors. Indeed it is, and includes nods not only to Cicero’s Verrine Orations and Letters to Atticus, but also Ovid’s Art of Love, Ulpian’s Commentaries on Roman law, and the writings of Seneca, Plutarch, Florus and Frontinus, to name but a few. As a bonus extra, his whole review seems intended as a gentle slap to an acquaintance who think Spartacus was invented by Howard Fast, and that nobody is allowed to write about the American Civil War any more, because Margaret Mitchell has already done it.
Sean Canfield at the Daily Rotation approaches Swords and Ashes from a formalist perspective, as someone who has never seen the TV series, and doesn’t care whose picture is on the cover, or who wrote the book. He demands that the book stands up on its own merits, not attached to any other text or event. A tall order, but one which he finds the book to have met. Now he wants to watch the TV show, which if truth be told is the entire reason why licensors get onboard with tie-ins: as adverts for the next season.
Jesse the Pen of Doom (What were Mr and Mrs Pen of Doom thinking when they gave their son the middle name of “the”?) over at 8 Days a Geek thinks that if you like sex and violence, you will like this. But he also notes what few other reviewers have — the precise moment in series continuity where the book is set, which he praises as a “great bridge between two key points.”
John Neal at Celebrity Cafe: “Clements is able to take readers deeper into the gladiator’s mind and reveal his thoughts and actions… an entertaining read and an excellent companion to the series”
Pilbeam at Defective Geeks: “It’s bloody, violent, vulgar and full of sex. And that’s just in the first chapter”!
Kate Lane at Shadowlocked calls it a “toga ripper”, noting that the nature of reading a book rather than watching a TV show makes sex and violence more garish and disturbing. She says it’s: “a fabulous, well written tale that grabs the reader by the throat and slams them around a tits-, tans- and testosterone- filled version of ancient Rome that leaves them breathless.”
George Sakalis at Extra Hype says: “By Jupiter’s cock, I recommend this book and if the following Spartacus books are like this one, then Titan Books will have a great tie-in series!” With a name like his, I was expecting some flak for the way the book treats Greeks, but it seems he took it all in context, as an example of historically accurate racism. Phew.
“Fitz” at Blogcritics likes the imagery, and quotes one of the scenes I liked the most.
John Redfearn at Bookgeeks finds himself “more interested in trying to work out the rules for deciding when people say ‘the’ or ‘a’ and when they leave them out than in what would happen next.”
Meanwhile, over on Amazon, there’s a growing number of reviews, from a very interesting bunch of readers, seemingly equally divided between those who have seen the TV series, and those who now want to.
When I handed in my manuscript of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes, I decided to call myself J.M. Clements. I thought it would be a smart move to stop Amazon spamming everybody who’d bought one of my non-fiction books and expecting them to like my fiction, too. I mean, they might. But I figured Spartacus is for Spartacus fans, and my name on the cover shouldn’t influence them one way or the other.
“It’s pretty obvious who you are,” sniffed the Editrix. “It’s about as likely to fool the public as Iain ‘M’ Banks.”
“I know,” I said. “And I’m proud of the book. I’m just trying to keep fact and fiction in separate areas. I hate it when some douche on Library Thing decides I shouldn’t be allowed to write about one subject because he thinks I can only write about something else.”
“That’s stupid,” said the Editrix. “That never happens.”
“It always happens!” I protested. “And they’ve got a particular hard-on for people who switch between fact and fiction, which people often do if they write for a living. I dread to imagine what these one-track people are like in real life, as if they don’t think it’s possible to be a father and an insurance salesman, or a Saturday footballer and a chef. They probably have conniptions if they have to do two things at once. Then they review themselves and say: ‘I cannot possibly walk and chew gum, for those activities are mutually exclusive. Worst gum-chewing walk evarrr.’”
“You are over-reacting,” said the Editrix.
“If they ran the world,” I ranted, “they’d say Neil Gaiman could only write about Duran Duran. Lynda la Plante would be good for nothing but Rentaghost. Robert Silverberg could only write popular history. And Tolkien can piss right off and stick to Anglo-Saxon etymology.”
“All right,” sighed the Editrix. “Have it your way.”
The next day, the Editrix was back.
“The distributors want to know about the other things you’ve written,” she said. “It’s so they can tell booksellers how brilliant you are.”
“But won’t that make it really obvious who I am?” I said.
“Yes, probably,” she said, without pause or apology.
So I told her about The Destroyer of Delights, which was a Doctor Who audio I was very pleased with, which had a recurring subtext about the nature of slavery. And since there were lots of fights in it, I thought that my Highlander story Secret of the Sword, was probably worth a mention. I decided it probably wasn’t worth bringing up the biography I once wrote of the president of Finland. He doesn’t crop up much in Spartacus.
A day later, the Editrix was back again.
“The distributors want to know where you live,” she said.
“Jupiter’s cock! Why!?”
“They like it. Their sales people like being able to say, ‘he’s a local boy’, to a bookseller near you.”
“But isn’t it more productive if everybody thinks I am a local boy?”
“Do not question the House of Random!”
“All right, all right.” So I told her where I lived. It felt a little bit like I was handing over my bank details to a Nigerian prince.
All of which meant was that by the time Spartacus: Swords & Ashes was up on Amazon, some bright spark had already worked out precisely who I was, and it was listed with all my other books. My attempt to carefully separate my fact and fiction had failed again.
“I’ve got a translation of The Art of War coming out in the summer,” I protested. “But shelvers at book-stores are going to look me up online and order their copies on the basis of the sales of this novel, which is full of sword-fights, swearing, rape and adverbs. It will be the most heavily over-ordered classical text in living memory.”
“You say that,” said the Editrix, “like it’s a bad thing.”
J.M. Clements is the author of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes, available now in paperback and on Kindle. He has written a few other things, too.
I’m a guest blogger this week over at Starburst, discussing Roman law, the history of slavery and allegories of zombie outbreak in the Roman Republic. There’s also a chance to win a copy of my Spartacus novel.
And that’s not all, for there’s another guest blog from me over at A Temporary Distraction, this time analysing my love of the earthy language of Spartacus – probably the only time you’ll see someone discussing Derek Jarman, gladiators’ groupies and the use of the indefinite article all in on the same page. If you’ve ever wanted to know about how to insult someone’s mother in Latin, now’s your chance.
ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? If that’s not enough, I appear yet again over at Blogomatic 3000, this time discussing the pitfalls of writing something that has to displease all readers equally. How obscene is too obscene, in a world where people get their faces hacked off? I hasten to clarify, when I say in this piece “crushed and broken by empire”, I’m using “empire” in its post-colonial studies sense as a “decentred and deterritorialising apparatus”. Spartacus lived at the time of the Roman Republic, of course, but the empire was already on its way.
And yet another, over at What Culture, where I talk about the nature of time in television. Probably the only time that EastEnders, Downton Abbey and Spartacus get mentioned in the same piece.
One more for luck: here’s me over at SF Review, discussing the sort of picture you see when you walk into the National Museum of the Philippines. Now, what on Earth does that have to do with Spartacus and “empire”…?
Gaius Verres was an asshole. He persecuted the Roman citizens that he was supposed to be ruling. He exploited a disaster on the mainland in order to line his own coffers, by accusing locals of harbouring escaped slaves. A man who stood up to him was so badly beaten that he died from his injuries. Another was crucified in sight of the mainland, taunting him with the knowledge that he died almost, but not quite out of the jurisdiction of the man who’d had him killed.
The people of Sicily got their revenge in the end, when they hired the young, up-and-coming litigator Cicero to plead their corruption case against their former governor. Cicero went for Verres like a man possessed. We know this because we still have the transcripts of his court-room arguments: a scathing, sarcastic series of personal attacks published as the Verrine Orations. Cicero never got to deliver them all because Verres, realising that bribes wouldn’t save him, fled the country, but Cicero was so keen on taking him down that he published the rest of his notes anyway.
The accusations from the Verrine Orations read like a…. well, like a proposal for a tie-in novel for Spartacus: Vengeance. As Spartacus terrorises the mainland, Verres uses his own position as governor of Sicily to exploit the disaster. He accuses locals of harbouring escaped slaves, and confiscates their property on trumped-up charges. He puts an incompetent crony in charge of his anti-pirate fleet, so that he can steal the man’s wife. The newly appointed admiral is so useless that the pirates actually attack Syracuse harbour.
My novel Spartacus: Swords & Ashes had to take place during the first season of the TV series, just before Verres took office in Sicily. But the temptation was irresistible to treat it as a prelude to the Verrine Orations. Why would Cicero be so keen to take Verres down after the Spartacus War? Could it be that they had met before, in a story unmentioned in the history books?
One of the stand-out characters in the Verrine Orations is Timarchides, a freed slave who works as Verres’ hatchet-man, intimidating witnesses, beating up rivals, and purloining government property for parties and orgies. For a story like that of Spartacus, obsessed with the state of slavery and what it means for human beings, what kind of man would Timarchides have been? How would he feel about having won his freedom, and what sort of attitude would he have to those who were still slaves?
So I put all three of them into Swords & Ashes. Gaius Verres, the newly-appointed governor of Sicily, ready to frisk the province for all it’s got. Timarchides his right-hand man, a former gladiator who despises slaves. And Cicero, the good-hearted young investigator, who comes to Neapolis on senatorial business. All are thrown into new intrigues at the funeral games of a noted local lanista, whose Capuan colleague Batiatus is providing the gladiators… including his celebrity warrior, Spartacus.
What could possibly go wrong…?