Virgin's Guide to Burning Man

A Virgin's Guide to Burning Man can be found here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Book Review

by Russell Whitfield, 2008
"In the arenas of Ancient Rome, the ultimate female warrior is born"

I went to Borders bookstore in search of historical fiction to get a sense of what the market in that area looked like. I especially hoped to find novels focusing on Ancient Greece, but alas, to my dismay there were none. Almost all the historical fiction I saw dealt primarily with European history--and medieval European history at that. We seem obsessed, as a culture, with the stories of kings and queens, emperors and the upper crust. I saw little, if any, stories about regular people and every day lives, as if somehow human struggles and daily toils do not transcend time. And what I saw of ancient times dealt almost exclusively with Rome (with one or two exceptions focusing on the likes of Genghis Khan). It's as if the Romans stole everything from the Greeks and we all decided the thieves were more interesting than the creators. Perhaps because they were marginally bloodier with all the sex still intact. It seems only philosophers in the ivory tower of academia bother themselves with Socrates and Plato and their ilk.

But I digress.

I saw Gladiatrix and seized upon it, grateful to find a book that, if set in ancient Rome, at least had a protagonist from ancient Greece. Albeit Spartans were a special breed of Hellenic folk, but at least one could say Greek characters appeared in the book.

Overall, I found the book an entertaining read, full of lively characters, vivid battle scenes and a good plot of a woman's struggle for freedom. The heroine, Lysandra, is strong and noble, even if a bit arrogant. In real life, I find people with too much ego obnoxious, but in Lysandra I found it gave her character a bit of spice. Instead of being annoyed, I found myself smiling indulgently at her like a parent might smile at an overly precocious child's attempts at profundity and pat them on the head.

What I especially appreciated about the book was its attempt to break down borders of traditional fiction in a way that was entertaining and less overtly activist. It dealt with issues of ethnicity, gender, class, homosexuality and human nature but it didn't bludgeon the reader over the head with it. A lot of breakthrough fiction deals with these issues more overtly--and that is important and good to force readers to think about issues and perspectives they may not have thought of before or may not have wanted to think of. But it's also nice to have a book that weaves these themes in so unselfconsciously you almost don't even notice they're there. You identify with the protagonist's point of view before you even realize you might be uncomfortable with it. I think that might be a very powerful way to advance more activist causes and still entertain while you're doing it.

However, what I did find less than fulfilling was the book's treatment of the sexual relationships between the gladiatrices. I think it's fantastic the author attempted to deal with it and treat it just like we would read heterosexual encounters in romance and literary fiction. But there is something about it that rubbed me the wrong way. It could be that because I knew the author was male, my perceptions were colored perhaps unfairly. But to me, it read a bit more like an adolescent male's wet dream of two women oiled up for battle rubbing each other in explicit and lascivious ways. The only thing I can imagine that he could have done to lend that part of the story a little more emotional credibility (maybe especially for his female audience) is to delve a bit more into the characters' relationship, especially between Lysandra and Eirianwen. Why did they love each other? What attracted them beyond the physical? There is clearly a strong and deep emotional attachment between the two, but why? Perhaps in delving more deeply into their love, the author can strengthen his treatment of their loving.

Overall, the book is entertaining and satisfying in the end and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good summer or lazy Sunday read.

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