Monday, May 28, 2007

Book review: Liberty, by Kimberly Iverson

Here there be spoilers.

Ah, Roman Britain, it does know how to surprise us. Every so often, it throws up a remarkable discovery - like that of the "Great Dover Street Woman" exhumed in 2000. The cremated remains of a woman were discovered outside the limits of second century London, and the artefacts discovered with her suggest that she was actually a gladiatrix - a female gladiator. Apparently they were all the rage from the time of Nero until they were banned in 200 AD by Septimus Severus, but until then, no one had actually found any proof of one. A fascinating, unique discovery like that must have had an interesting backstory, and author Kimberly Iverson (otherwise known as Kim Headlee), attempts to give it one.

Although the Dover Street Woman actually lived around 80 AD, Iverson's story begins some time around 160 AD, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Rhyddes (which means "freedom", as we will be reminded many, many times) is a Votadini farm girl who suffers the temper of her abusive father. Things go from bad to worse for Rhyddes within the first couple of chapters. A Pictish raid on her home leaves two of her brothers dead, and her father sells her into slavery to pay off a tax debt. Not even two chapters in, Iverson shows that she has no intention of stinting on detail, no matter how harrowing, and Rhyddes is gang-raped by the soldiers she has been sold to. She then ends up in the slave market, where she is paraded naked in front of the bidders.

Among those bidders is Marcus Calpurinus Aquila, the fictional son of the historical Governor Sextus Calpurnius Agricola (not to be confused with Gnaeus Julius Agricola). Marcus lives a double life as an aristocrat's son and star gladiator "Aquila Britannia", even though he knows his "hobby" scandalises his father. Agricola wants Marcus to marry Messiena, a senator's daughter, and also to retire from the arena. Marcus, unhappy at having to give up his freedom, goes to the forum with Jamil, the Egyptian gladiator trainer. Both Marcus and Jamil covet Rhyddes at first sight, but for very different reasons. Marcus wants her 'cause she's hot, and Jamil's looking for a potential gladiatrix to add to his stable.

Anyway, after a grrgnash-inducing scene where Marcus feels up the merchandise and Rhyddes finds herself getting all tingly inside (despite - y'know - the public humiliation and the gang-rape), Jamil comes out the winner, and Rhyddes is introduced to Villa Britanniae, one of Londinium's gladiator schools, to become its first gladiatrix. Marcus, although no longer allowed to compete, comes down regularly to train with the gladiators, and from there he and Rhyddes fall in love. All is not well in the Empire, however, and they very soon find themselves embroiled in a plot to depose Marcus Aurelius, from which neither of them may escape with their alives.

An ambitious novel, definitely, and it could very well have been intriguing, if it weren't for the fact that the core of the story wasn't the kill-the-Emperor one, but the so-called romance between Rhyddes and Marcus. And even then, it wouldn't have been a problem, if the romance wasn't so tepid. I really wanted to feel for Rhyddes, as she's a young woman who's gone from one kind of terrible life to another, but she's just such a two-note character, jumping back and forth between "angry stoic Votadini warrior" to "giddy teenager in lust", I just didn't really care either way what happened to her.

Marcus, however, is worse by far. No matter how many times Iverson describes him as "charming", he remains anything but. He's a shallow, self-absorbed twit who cares about one thing and one thing only: getting Rhyddes in the sack. Such faults could be excused, given that a young Roman aristocrat would no doubt be that way, but there's no character growth there, no reason for me to stop seeing him as merely an arrogant spoiled brat who just happens to have a nice smile.

The whole novel, in fact, is very tepid. Even the kill-the-Emperor-plot is devoid of all suspense, as the identity of the culprit is pretty much obvious from the word go. Not to mention the entire thing didn't make sense. Maybe I missed something, but I couldn't really work out just how a huge gladiator uprising would aid anyone in assassinating the Emperor, especially since half the Praetorian Guard had already been bribed. The book just seems to lumber along, with no real change in pace or mood, with no proper cleverness or humour to add some flavour. Like the two leads, the prose just seems to go along with one or two notes, and although all the scenes with gladiators and the gladiator school are informative without resorting to info-dumping, they're not particularly atmospheric or absorbing. I felt I really was reading the story, not watching it unfold in front of me. Even the historical Agricola, Marcus Aurelius and Empress Faustina are reduced to mere stock cameos.

The romance is badly executed. Rhyddes and Marcus only see each other sporadically, and their encounters leave no room for either of them to properly learn anything about the other for me to believe that what they had was love. By the end, all Rhyddes seems to know about Marcus is that he's good-looking, he has a nice smile, he's a Roman, he's good-looking, he's a good fighter, he's getting married to someone else. And, oh yeah, he's good-looking. By the same token, Marcus only knows that Rhyddes is a beautiful gladiatrix with a terrible past. Their encounters are devoid of any proper emotion, or even any proper eroticism.

History, too, is skewed. Not so skewed as in the Gladiator movie, but noticeably enough. Gladiator life is described down to the tiniest detail, but everywhere else there are glaring errors. More than once, the unmarried Messiena is described as wearing a stola. Tiny, but very obvious. Marcus' short stint as a military tribune is completely off. Tribunes were appointed by the Senate, not by Daddy, even if Daddy happened to be the Governor of the Province, and elected at the yearly Tribal Assembly, not whenever they damn well felt like it. Modern dialogue such as "Quit staring" or "Am I glad to see you" didn't help with the atmosphere at all, furthering the impression that these characters were nothing more than modern teenagers in period costume. The oh-so happy ending was incongruous, too. Yes, as far as I know, a freed slave could be adopted and did receive citizen's rights, but the stigma of slavery remained with them for years in the eyes of society. And Marcus' promise of fidelity to his bride-to-be was so anachronistic it was almost laughable, especially seeing as their marriage was a political contract.

In short, Liberty felt very much like a wasted opportunity. I did like the characters of Jamil and Messiena (my favourites in the entire book), and my inner Roman history geek did enjoy finding out about the lives of gladiators, but as a novel about two people trying to free themselves from the shackles of society, it fell flat. It didn't hit the wall, but I did have to force myself to finish it.

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