Trashy Read 2012 #2: The Gladiator's Honor, by Michelle Styles
This semester I'm in a class called "Martial Masculinities in Cinema," and it's exactly what it sounds like. We watch a lot of action films and then talk about the importance of warrior-like masculinity to different cultures. Early in the semester, we watched Spartacus and read articles about Roman gladiators. I became fascinated by the gladiator culture, particular the kind of fan-girling that took place around gladiator schools and competitions. Women were crazy for gladiators, writing love stories about them and scrawling graffiti on the walls of gladiator schools. As someone who has been known to be both a fangirl and a hopeless romantic, this had me thinking: Are there any historical romance novels out there about gladiators? It seems like such a rich area, that I couldn't imagine there wasn't at least one out there somewhere. For help, I went to my romance goddess, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, aka the best romance genre website on the internet. Because she is amazing and knows her stuff, Wendell emailed me back within 48 hours to give me the names of some gladiator romances on the market. One of them, Michelle Styles's The Gladiator's Honor, looked good, so I downloaded it to my Kindle at once.
Admittedly, this book took me a while to get through. I am swamped with work and school right now, but the book's glacial pacing certainly didn't help matters. The book centers on Julia Antonia, a young woman who recently go divorced from her brutal asshole husband. Julia is still haunted by the crappy things her ex-husband did to her, including physical and emotional abuse. She's moved back in with her father and stepmother to recover, but it looks like her future only holds another marriage with a prestigious Roman who won't make her happy either. Then she meets Valens, a famous gladiator with his own messy past. Valens is the son of a senator, and he was always expected to take his father's place in the elite Roman political world. Unfortunately, some shenanigans happen and he ends up kidnapped by pirates, made a slave, and eventually forced to become a gladiator in order to win his freedom. His father believes he's dead, but Valens thinks the old man just simply abandoned him. One of the reasons he fights for his freedom is so that he can then return to his father and prove himself again. Then he meets Julia, and he has a whole new reason to wish for freedom.
This is not a great book by any means. It's extremely well-researched, with Styles having obviously done some homework. But the writing is simply serviceable, and the plot turns can be seen from a mile away. Also, I had some problems with the hero and heroine. Julia has a couple of brave moments, but overall she's too good to be true, and her weakness got on my nerves after a while (weak, Mary Sue-like heroines are the living worst). Valens is a classic good guy hero who is also incredibly strong and masculine, but his stubbornness got a little eye-rollingly predictable by the end. Emotionally, I just couldn't get too invested in this relationship.
There is one saving grace in this book: the last gladiator fight between Valens and his mortal enemy. Oh man, did I get into that - the physicality of the fight itself, but also Julia's emotional reactions up in the stands. I unabashedly loved everything relating to gladiators in this book, but I couldn't get into any other aspect of it. While reading the book, I kept joking with friends that I would love to write my own kick-ass gladiator romance. Considering how flimsy this particular book was overall, I might just still do that. My secret dream in life is to now bring along a trend of gladiator romances.