Spartacus Reviewed

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.

[Time travel footnote. The translations are getting some nice notices, too. Here’s Wulf Bengsch getting very enthusiastic auf Deutsch.]

The Verrine Orations

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…?

J.M. Clements is the author of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes, out now in the US in paperback and on the Kindle. It is released in the UK on 27th January.