Review: Abominations by Paul R Brenner

The year is 68 CE. Led by the fanatical Sicarii, the ideological dagger men, Jews seize Jerusalem, execute the Roman garrison, and begin to cleanse Judaea of all impurities and foreign influences, including Greek love. Nero sends Vespasianus with three legions to quell the revolt. Caught in this conflict is the Sacred Community of Men, whose leader is the man who was Jesus’ lover, and Joanna, in whose home was held the Last Supper with Jesus. To escape assassination, Jesus’ beloved flees Judaea for cosmopolitan Alexandria, where he has been accepted as a Visiting Scholar in the famous Temple of the Muses, the Mouseion. Within days of arriving in the city, fierce ethnic fighting breaks out between Greeks and Jews, disrupting his life and plans. Further complicating his life is Markos, the sexy, wealthy young Greek, who wants a relationship with him, Hakor, the young orphaned Egyptian boy whom he befriends, and Diokles, Director of Visiting Scholars, who takes more than an intellectual interest in him. He senses he is being followed without being able to identify by whom. When he and his friends are viciously attacked, they discover the Sicarii have him marked for assassination. Finally, to end the chaos, Tiberius Alexander, Governor of Egypt, recalls the legion from fighting bandits in the south of Egypt. As they attack the quarter, our hero is trapped and comes face to face with a Roman centurion with drawn bloody sword eager to kill. Will he survive?

Review by Erastes

It’s taken me a while to review this book because I wanted to be as fair as I possibly could be. At first I was mildly excited because although there are a couple of Jesus gay books they are more erotica than historical fiction. Abominations is very “closed bedroom door” which was an approach I liked and would have left room for the plot.

That is, if there had been a plot. I kept reading and reading in the hopes that some kind of plot would manifest itself, but sadly it simply didn’t. It’s simply a book about a bloke who travels about, meets people and does stuff. Content doesn’t equal plot.

It’s set about 30 years after Jesus (called Joshua in this) was killed and it covers some of his friends and disciples as they come to terms with his death and how the world is getting to know about him and how everyone has a different take on “who he was.” This, I found interesting. Even if Jesus was just a normal person, albiet wise and charismatic, there was going to be some confusion afterwards as gradually more and more people claimed to know who he was and what he stood for. This is illustrated well, as the groups of people grow and split apart as their opinions differ.

There’s an awful lot of theology in this, and I’m afraid I know nuffin’ about theology and religious history so whether the facts–or even the myths discussed–are accurate, I simply couldn’t tell you. I admit that I was taking it all on faith (scuse the pun) that Bremmer knew what he was talking about when a couple of large mistakes hoved into view and then I started to doubt it all. Someone with more knowledge than I would know whether there was a Sacred Community of Men (and one of women) and what they stood for etc. I admit I was a bit lost in this respect.

What jarred me more than anything was the entirely modern feel to the book. Now, I’m not expecting people to be speaking Greek, or Aramaeic or anything like that, but these characters were speaking “2011 San Francisco” as far as I could see, and you could pick any of them up by their “fabulous, darlings!” and transplant them to Castro and they would simply fit right in. No, I didn’t want everyone to be thee-ing and thou-ing, but I find it unlikely that everyone would be quite as flaming as they are depicted here.

Everyone is gay, too. Simply everyone. Everyone the narrator meets fancies him, or makes a pass, or leers over him, or offers himself up. He’s simply irresistible, it seems. The librarian is gay, all the soldiers they meet, chance encounters on ships and in cafes (in fact there are gay bars, for goodness sake) There’s a thriving gay community where everyone seems to know everyone else.  It was this very gay community (in Alexandria) that gave me misgivings, because I had read a lot about the Greek attitude to homosexuality and it didn’t strike me that it was particularly OKHOMO to this degree. Yes, men were considered to be the best teachers of the young (heaven forbid the women would be allowed to do it, after all as they weren’t really allowed out of the house that much) but an erastes/eromenos relationship was pretty unequal when it came down to it, the erastes being older and allegedly wiser. Here the men pair off according to whim and attraction–and love–and live together as easily as… men living in San Francisco. As far as I was aware men did not carry on homosexual relationships with men of equal age, in fact it was quite frowned upon.

The prose is fairly regular througout, despite the modern feel to it which jarred me on a basic level on just about every page. But the first major love-making scene (which, as I said above, are non-explicit) was so bloody hilariously written I ended up snorting tea out of my nose.

Here’s a snippet of the first part of it (and it goes on for several pages of my Kindle after this):

…our mouths open to each other, and all that has been

detoured, denied, disrupted,

unspoken, unapproached, untouched, unfilfilled, undone

erupts

in an

enmeshing, entwining, enwrapping, engulfing, enflaming

frenzy

of

touching, tasting, tonguing, teghtening, twisting,

savoring, sucking, swallowing, sliding, squeezing, squishing…

Hmm.

Add to all of this that the author got the erastes and the eromenos muddled up and presents the erastes as the younger partner, rather than the younger plus the fact the sailing ships (in first century AD) had portholes when they weren’t invented until the 16th century, –  and you’ll begin to see why I was doubting the research into the rest of it.

Continuing with the language, the author has attempted to flavour his book by chucking in Greek (and probably other, but it’s not explained what language they are) words at a fairly regular rate and at times it was intrusive and annoying, particularly with the over-modern language used throughout, and the “As you know, Bob” translations to phrases spoken. There’s quite a lot of “As you know, Bob” throughout as the backstory is explained which made me grind my teeth.

What I did like, though, despite my entire non-belief in the entire affair–was the way it made me think about the way word would have spread about Jesus after his death and how that people would shape the stories around him, even from the word go (let alone how they have been twisted 2000 years later.)  It’s clear from much of the book — and from the postscript — that the author has done a great deal of research, but whether he has actually portrayed first century Alexandria with any conviction, I really don’t know. Personally if you have any expertise in the era, I would be very interested to know your view on it, should you read it. It’s worth a look, I would say, for its rarity value. But it left me puzzled to be honest.

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Review: Gaius and Achilles by Clodia Metelli

Gaius and Achilles is a gay historical romance, set in Late Republican Rome, concerning the choices facing Achilles, a young aristocrat from Paphos whose life is thrown into confusion when he is captured by pirates and separated from his lover Hippothous.

He finds himself the slave of decadent Roman poet Gaius Manlius Torquatus, a sensitive soul, who must struggle with the conflicting demands and desires of his nature.

Achilles’ radical change in status from respected citizen to personal property forces him to struggle to redefine his threatened sense of self and ultimately to question what it is to be free.

Meanwhile, his lover Hippothous is facing his own perilous adventures and is determined to find and save Achilles at any cost.

Review by Michael Joseph

It’s not often anymore that a book catches me completely by surprise, taking turns that you just don’t expect an historical romance to take. “Gaius and Achilles” surprised me, and I don’t mind saying right up front it was quite a pleasant surprise.

We’re first briefly introduced to Achilles and Hippothous, two aristocratic Greek youths of Paphos, on the island of Crete. The two young friends consider themselves lovers, although Hippothous would prefer the relationship conform to Platonic ideals, while Achilles yearns for greater physical expression. The men are both selected to compete in the Pythian games, and set sail along with the cream of the island’s youth for Delphi. Unfortunately, they’re set on by pirates, taken captive and sold into slavery in Italy.

When we first meet Gaius, he’s whipping a slave boy, only it’s not really a slave, it’s his boyfriend Antyllus, and he likes it. Or, maybe he doesn’t. Antyllus was once a slave, but now he’s a free man with a successful acting career. Unfortunately, he’s a sadly damaged and self-destructive young man who can’t seem to stop playing mind games with his boyfriend Gaius (sigh, been there). Gaius is almost driven mad by his young lover’s mercurial temperament, but finally wises up and resolves to part company with Antyllus.

Gaius escapes to his country estate, which he hasn’t visited since he was a boy. His uncle, who raised Gaius when his parents died, used to look after the vineyard for Gaius but he has now passed away, leaving Gaius with the responsibility to look after the business which provides his income. Soon after his arrival, the estate is embroiled in turmoil. It seems the steward, Rufus, has purchased a new slave who is quite unruly, and has even tried to escape. Rufus wants to whip the slave into submission, but the more Gaius hears, the more concerned he becomes and so he asks to see the slave for himself.

The slave is, of course, Achilles and under questioning it becomes clear that Rufus has purchased the young man, at considerable expense using Gaius’ money, to act as his own personal sex slave. Achilles quite naturally balked at this. Rufus had, quite wrongly, assumed his new master would be some addle-brained upper class twit. Once he figures out what is really going on, Gaius has Rufus quite literally peeing his toga.

Gaius takes pity on Achilles, and tries to more gently ease him into his new life as a slave. He makes the young man is personal servant and treats him with respect. He is also strongly attracted sexually to Achilles, but Gaius has a surprisingly strong moral code, especially for a Roman. He won’t take any man, even a slave, without their willing consent. So, he sets about wooing Achilles, which doesn’t prove difficult. The young man, in spite of himself, is also attracted to his new master. Gaius gives the beautiful youth the physical expression of love that’s long been denied him, and allows Achilles to explore the darker desires he’s long suppressed. This is where things get really interesting, but Achilles can’t give himself totally to Gaius. He pines for his lost lover Hippothous, whose fate remains unknown to him, and he still rebels at the idea of his enslavement.

“Gaius and Achilles” is set at the very end of the republic (that’s the Roman republic, dears, this isn’t Star Wars fanfic). Julius Caesar is as yet an up-and-coming young politician, mentioned a few times in the story. The author, apparently writing under a pen name taken from the time of the setting, seems to be a serious student of the Greco-Roman period and has woven a rich background for the story. There are vivid details about the daily life of a country villa. Everything, right down to the foods eaten at every meal, rings true to me. It’s all delivered in a very readable style that never becomes pedantic.

The historic detail alone makes this a very capable story, but it’s the relationship between Gaius and Achilles that really sets this book apart as something entirely unique in my experience. Many ‘serious’ historical romances – those not intended simply as one-handed reads – often tread quite lightly when it comes to sex. Even when they do get descriptive, the sex is often rather vanilla. The depictions of sex between Gaius and Achilles is quite unabashedly detailed and erotic. But what really pushed it over the edge into something completely different, what made me stop and think “wow” when I realized where it was going, is that the sex between the two men moves quite firmly into the realm of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sado-Masochism). That was really just totally unexpected in a historical romance set in ancient Rome. Non-consensual sex in a master/slave relationship is one thing, but consensual BDSM is quite another.

It took me a little while to see what the author was doing. This isn’t all about shock and titillation. What the writer manages to do is set up a rather exquisite tension between the two sides of Achilles’ personality. On the one hand, there’s his public persona, the free-born Greek aristocrat who can’t wrap his head around now being a slave, someone’s property, with no control over what happens to him. On the other hand is Achilles’ private self, with a sexuality at its core that has an strong need to serve a master. He finds strength in submission, and joy in the pain of a whipping. It’s the tension between these two opposites that sets the theme of the story.

It’s in the description of the BDSM scenes that I found the closest thing to a flaw in the book. There was something rather ‘modern’ about the scenes – safe words, boundaries and limits are openly discussed. These things are very important to the story, in making Achilles feel comfortable enough to submit to Gaius’ domination, but they still felt somewhat out of place in ancient Rome. Although the Romans left plenty of documentation about what they got up to in bed, I doubt we have the level of detail to know if they understood the importance of safe words. This wasn’t one of those things that jars you out of the story, it was more a slow realization, and frankly, once I noticed it I simply overlooked it and read on. It doesn’t really detract from the story.

In then end, I felt the author was acting rather more responsibly than most. I do read a fair bit of BDSM, and even review it for another site. A lot of what gets labeled as BDSM really isn’t. It’s non-consensual sex, sexual torture and even outright mutilation. In “Gaius and Achilles” the author has shown how two (or more) consenting adults can engage in extreme sex safely. She probably could have glossed over some of the safety details without detracting from the story, but I think it actually becomes more powerful the way it is.

Hippothous is not completely forgotten in all this. He’s constantly in the background, forming a wedge between Gaius and Achilles. We get regular updates on his adventures as well. He is first sold to a brothel, but he fakes a seizure his first night on duty and is promptly resold, this time to a merchant with need of a Greek scribe. This at first seems a more suitable position, but his talent soon lands him in trouble with the senior slave, who frames the lad for theft to get him out of the way. While awaiting his fate, which will be whipping, or worse, Hippothous is allowed to escape by his master’s daughter and soon falls in with a gang of bandits.

It becomes quite obvious early on that, for the story to resolve itself, Achilles and Hippothous have to meet again. When they do, Achilles is forced to choose between his friend and his lover, between the freedom of Paphos with it’s moral restrictions and life as a slave to Gaius allowed to explore his innermost desires. It’s not much of a choice, really.

This book pushed a lot of my buttons, and more importantly, it pushed a combination of buttons I don’t expect a single story to push. That said, I realize this book is not going to appeal to everyone. In fact, I suspect it’s going to be one of those stories that people either love or hate. There won’t be much middle ground. If you have a taste for extreme sex, you’ll probably like this book. If too much sex in a book is a turn-off, just don’t read it.

I decided to give “Gaius and Achilles” 4.5 stars. The main reason I’m not giving it 5 stars is that, while it’s a ripping good yarn, it didn’t really tug at my heart-strings (although other bits got fondled). There’s nothing I can really put my finger on to account for this, the characters are well rounded and likable. I suspect it’s down to the remoteness of the time and circumstances. I just couldn’t get into the head of an ancient Roman or Greek aristocrat, and I certainly have absolutely no frame of reference for what it’s really like to be a slave, with absolutely no control over what happens to me. Others might get into it more easily, and really be tugged by Achilles’s situation, so I don’t consider this a real failing of the book.

Clodia Metelli’s web site

“Gaius and Achilles” may be purchased from Smashwords or Kindle (ebook only)

Historical Call For Submissions – Riptide Publishing

Riptide Publishing

Warriors of Rome

Help us launch our Historical Warriors line with gay and trans stories about warriors during the time of the Roman Empire. Stories can focus on Rome (from the Eternal City to its provinces), or on Rome’s enemies. Explore barracks life with Roman legionaries and their officers, or follow Germanic tribes and Gauls as they rise up against the invaders. Let us fight alongside the Persians and Carthaginians, or join forces as auxiliaries and allies with the glory of Rome.

Of course, soldiers weren’t the only ones to take up arms. Gladiators fought and often died for the entertainment of the masses. So too did slaves to earn their freedom, and simple farmers to protect their land against the Roman invaders. We’d love to hear their stories, as well.

We’re seeking historicals for this call, which means research is crucial. Our editors will only select stories that are faithful to the period in which they are set. If you use paranormal elements or magical realism, be sure they fit into the time period; conquerors and conquerees alike have their superstitions, of course, and we welcome those elements as secondary—but not primary—foci in your submissions. All levels of eroticism are welcome and erotic content is encouraged, but sex is no substitute for the plot, character, and worldbuilding we’re seeking for this call.

Length: 25,000 to 35,000 words -OR- 50,000+ words
Genres: Historical (some supernatural elements allowed)
Heat Levels: Any
Ending: Any
Orientation: Gay or trans
Submissions Due: May 15, 2012
Acceptance Letters Sent By: July 1, 2012 for novellas, July 15, 2012 for novels
Anticipated Release Date: December 2012

Submission Instructions

All manuscripts should be complete, and edited and polished to the best of your ability. Please send the following submission package to submissions@riptidepublishing.com:

  • A query letter containing the title, genre(s), word count, and orientation of your story; a one- to two-paragraph “sales pitch” (like the blurbs you see on the back cover of a book); and a brief history of your publication, if any.
  • A two- to three-page synopsis of your story from start to finish. Do not leave out the ending!
  • Your completed manuscript.

Please paste the query letter directly into your email, and attach the synopsis and manuscript as .rtf files. We have no specific formatting requirements, but please be sensible and remember that if the editor has a hard time reading your submission, he or she simply won’t.

You’ll receive an automated email confirming our receipt of your submission. Due to the large volume of submissions anticipated, we regret to say rejections cannot be personalized. If your story is rejected, please do not write the editor asking why; such emails will not be answered.

Review: Gladiators #1: House of Simeon by D J Manly

Gold was the unbeatable champion of the House of Simeon but after the gods foretell his death, his master refuses to put him into the arena again. Instead, he makes Gold his trainer, and uses his body for his own pleasure.

Gold wants nothing more than to fight again. It is all he knows, and he hates the fact that people think he is a coward, hiding behind his master. He longs for a death of glory in the arena, the only respectable way for a gladiator slave to leave this world.

Samson comes into Gold’s life unexpectedly. A slave with potential to rise through the ranks, but also the first man who has been able to rouse something inside of him he thought was dead.

Can Samson make Gold reveal his feelings, or will he remain the unattainable trainer who longs for a glorious death?

Review by Erastes

The trouble I found with this, that it was like reading an episode of the TV show Spartacus. Now, I don’t know when this was written, although it was published in 2010. It may have been written a long time before Spartacus hit our screens, but it’s unfortunate in that case for the author because so much of Spartacus is mirrored here. Gold is in the place of Oenameaus, the Doctore (trainer) in the show. He’s an ex-gladiator and his master doesn’t want him to fight any more and Gold resents that, just like the Doctore does. There’s a champion, and a possible up and coming champion. There’s a resentful son. In fact there’s much that’s derivative but in a way, that’s also to be expected. I don’t suppose ludi (the gladiator schools) were that different from each other.

The story, whilst familiar, isn’t bad. It’s certainly readable and if you like gladiator stories you’ll like this. It just didn’t sing for me.

Regarding the characters, Gold is one of these characters who EVERYONE in the world wants to shag. Obviously his fans from the arena, but his owner wants to shag him too, his owner’s wife ditto, the son, every single gladiator, the house servants, even rival gladiator owners. It gave the impression that he was of more use as a sex slave than a gladiator. And frankly, I couldn’t see what everyone saw in him. We are told he’s gorgeous, but other than his black hair and hugely muscled abs (yes, they get called abs, too) I couldn’t see the attraction. Yes, he’d get people who wanted to fuck him because he was a star (albeit waning) but he was a veritable iceberg and at least two of the other testosterone laden-cut-your-head-off-soon-as-look-at-you were sighing over their oatmeal in love with him. And as so often is the case, everyone (aside from the women) have homosexual tendencies, or are entirely homosexual.

Which leads me to the girly glads. The ones who show feelings seem altogether rather romantic for the setting they are in. I’m not saying relationships weren’t formed even in such horrible circumstances,but one particular gladiator spends more time swooning and hardening over his amore than he does actually worrying that he could be dead in a day or so. The love story wasn’t convincing, either. One moment Gold is all “I have no heart” and then he’s “I love him” and there really wasn’t enough interaction between the two to give this any kind of reality. Granted they had a couple of quick tumbles, but the communication between them both didn’t seem likely to have such passionate attachment. Your mileage may vary, I know.

There’s plenty of hot sweaty gladiator sex here, if that’s your bag, but my main problem with it is that most of it was rape. You might wave your finger at me and say “oh, surely, it’s only non-consensual isn’t it?” But no. Non con = rape and the fact that a slave submits to the abuse doesn’t change it from being wrong to being “Ok for titillation.” I didn’t like the rape scenes at all, and presented as erotica, I liked them even less. I suspect, having read the first section of Book 2, this is also going to be a big problem for me.  Present the full-blown rape penetrative scenes as veiled flashbacks and concentrate on the consensual stuff, specially in a romance. Save the other for mainstream fiction.

Rating “e-taboo”—I didn’t like this, because there’s nothing here that’s taboo. No-one’s shagging goats, or their sisters. Yes, there’s rape but others would call it non-con and say slave sex was not rape. But rating it taboo simply perpetrates the idea that gay sex is naughty and wrong. Need I go on?

Language – not bad. There’s no attempt, thank goodness to go and write it in translated Latin, like the Spartacus show, and the modern speech didn’t bother me all that much. But one or two instances did — e.g “I don’t know what makes him tick.” Really? What ticked in Roman times? I could gloss over a lot of the modern language, after all if we translated everyday speech from Roman times it would of course be colloquial, but if i’d been editing this, I would have suggested phrases that suited the time.

Talking of editing, it was pretty shoddy. Typing errors all over the place, e.g. trial for trail, Gracie at least 3 times for Gracia which made me chuckle—and homonyms such as discretely and discreetly being muddled. The POV needed a lot of tightening up, too as several chapters began in third person and then slipped into first which was disorienting and annoying.

But despite my catalogue of quibbles, it was very readable, and I read to the end, gripped by the story and worrying about the characters enough to enjoy the read in general. I’m looking forward to reading the next one despite the problems I know I’m going to have with it.

Author Website

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Review: The Soldier of Raetia: Valerian’s Legion by Heather Domin

Rome, 10BC. New soldier Manilus Dardanus is sent to apprentice under General Cassius Valerian in the hope of securing a military sponsorship. Dardanus is idealistic and naive, Valerian brusque and restrained – but each soon discovers the other is not what he expected. In the legion Dardanus finds purpose and strength; in Dardanus, Valerian finds hope. This bond will be tested on the northern frontier, as Valerian and Dardanus each realize the true nature of their connection just as war and betrayal threaten to end it – and possibly their lives.

Review by Gerry Burnie

Although my specialty is Canadian history, I have a great appreciation for all history, and I certainly bow to Heather Domin’s knowledge of Augustinian Rome, as demonstrated in “The Soldier of Raetia: Valerian’s Legion.

I also like her writing style. She provides just the right amount of description to make both characters and settings vivid without slowing the pace. The characters are also well developed and distinctive although I did find Elurius and Pertinax somewhat similar in nature. This applies to their respective relationships with Dardanus and Valerian, as well. The author has also made very good use of dialogue (very credible), without being contrived.  What I liked most, however, was that the story builds to a climax gradually—like an orgasm—and the climax was gratifying.

The synopsis of the story is that young Manilus Dardanus has come to Rome at his father’s insisstance. The father has arranged an introduction to the wealthy and illustrious general Marcus Cassius Valerian, who commands Augustus Caesar’s twenty-fourth legion. Crusty General Valerian is hardened by battle and tragedies of the past, and at first assumes that Dardanus is like the other sons of sycophants who have sought his favour—i.e. with the idea of an adoption in mind. Despite these reservations, valerian gives him a place within his household and arranges for him to be trained as a soldier. Theirs is an awkward relationship, but in spite of this they both undergo significant changes; Valarian re-discovers deeply buried emotions within himself, and Dardanus grows from a callow boy to a self-sufficient man. He also discovers friendships bonded from hard work and the heat of battle, as well as loyalty asa soldier and for his idol, Valerian.

Having said all that, I had some minor reservations. I certainly bow to Ms Domin’s knowledge of Roman history, but did they travel in carriages (I mean the four-wheel variety) is 10BC Rome? I don’t know, but it seemed at little ‘modern’ to me. Their were some other anachronisms aswell, For example, the phrases “working his ass off,” and “Cut them off at the pass,” also seem a bit modern. However, these certainly didn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the story.

Highly recommended. 

This review was originally posted on Gerry B’s reviews

Author’s website

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Review: Eromenos by Melanie McDonald

Eros and Thanatos converge in this story of a glorious youth, an untimely death, and an imperial love affair that gives rise to the last pagan god of antiquity, Antinous.

In this coming-of-age novel set in second century Rome, the Greek youth Antinous of Bithynia recounts his seven-year affair with Hadrian, the fourteenth Roman emperor. In a partnership more intimate than Hadrian’s political marriage, Antinous captivates the most powerful ruler on the earth.

This version of the story of the emperor and his beloved ephebe envisions the life of the youth who after death achieved apotheosis as a pagan god whose cult of worship lasted for hundreds of years, and gives voice to Antinous, whose image still appears in museums around the world.

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

There are plenty of books in the genre that are a struggle to read even once. Even more aren’t worth being read more than once. There’s nothing left to discover, and I delete these off my reader without regrets. Then there are books like “Eromenos” by Melanie McDonald, which I read twice to be able to review it, and will very likely read a couple more times. (This from somebody who rarely, if ever, re-reads fiction books – non-fiction is a different matter.)

What made Eromenos so compelling for me was the style and the authenticity. Frankly, few authors in the genre write as well as McDonald, and even fewer look behind the mask of their characters, so when you find a book like that, it’s a rare ray of sunlight in what threatens to be fairly drab and mediocre world – at least when I despair over the genre, as I sometimes do and every time I read a bad book that somehow got published.

Here’s one of the rare gems that make it worthwhile. And if “Eromenos” is a gem, it’s an opal. Glittering depths and sparks of light and brilliance, a complex array of meaning that is great to discover a first time, even better the second time around, and strong enough to earn a permanent space on my bookshelf.

On the surface, it’s another novel (or short novel/novella, it’s pretty short at under 180 pages in the formatting on my e-reader, of which around 30 pages are appendices and intro) about Antinous, the Greek favourite of Roman emperor Hadrian. It’s the second Antinous novel I’ve read (after Gardiner’s “Hadrian Enigma” and it’s fascinating how different the two books are.

McDonald’s book is written in first person from the view of Antinous just before he commits suicide. The mysterious death of the emperor’s lover on the cusp of manhood has always intrigued historians and writers, and every one has found his or her own solution. In this case, it’s suicide.
But it’s more than that (so I’m not really giving away the twist of the story here). It’s a short memoir where we learn about Antinous’s youth in Bythinia, his training, how Hadrian chose him, and about life at court. It’s not a historical romance by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not an erotic romance. Sex is hinted at and more or less symbolic. Hadrian must have what Hadrian wants, and as the most powerful man of his time, who would deny him?

At the same time, Antinous knows about the vulnerabilities of the great man, and plays dumb to survive the power struggles at court. He’s not a player, he’s not a pawn, he’s an outsider in a very privileged position and defined as “Hadrian’s favourite.”

In this is the true tragedy of the character. He’s defined as Hadrian’s lover, and yet about to lose his position (as he’s getting too old, and while it’s fine for an emperor to take a boy or youth as a lover, it’s unseemly to have a man as a consort). And once the emperor has severed those ties, where else does he have to turn to? What else could he possibly be? From the dizzying heights he has climbed (or rather, has been elevated to due to his good looks and a healthy portion of luck), anything after that would be a fall and descent into anonymity and insignificance.

The tragedy is that because of Hadrian, Antinous can’t be Antinous. He can’t discover who he really is, because he is the emperor’s consort. But even without Hadrian, he’ll only be the ex-consort. Who and what he is beyond that is the question that makes suicide such a tempting option. He can be tied forever to Hadrian, becomes eternal in joining – according to the magical thinking of the time – his lifeforce with that of the Emperor and prolong his life.

The memoir we read is that search for identity, which ask these questions. Who could I be? Who could I have been? And many of those questions have no answers. The search for these answers is what defines Antinous in the book – he is a cypher, both for historians and writers and for himself. The suicide makes him even more that.

If that makes it sound like a self-pitying, whining book, it’s not. It’s an earnest quest for identity and purpose (this is where the authenticity comes in). The book is literary in style and depth, and treats both the history and sexual mores of the time with great respect. There’s a lot of research in this, both how a man of the times would frame things, what he’d refer to and how he’d express himself.

References to mythology and history firmly ground the character in history. The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous is an unequal one. An eromenos is the beloved, and the junior partner to an erastes, supposedly to be taught and prepared to become a man, but ultimately, it’s not the equal partnership of two men that romantic love would suggest. And while there’s fondness and affection in the text, I don’t read Antinous as being romantically in love with Hadrian. He was clearly infatuated and loved him during the early stages of the relationship, but that emotion is tempered and changes into something else during the telling.

And how could Antinous, now more mature, really truly deeply madly love Hadrian? In the end, he is “just” the consort. He plays his role because that’s his duty, he’s been chosen, but he’s never an equal partner and can’t possibly be. Hadrian calls all the shots.

Here’s a small piece of text from the start:

“When I was six, wandering about the cook’s garden behind our villa, I discovered a field mouse dead in a thicket of berry brambles as high as my waist. Gazing at those translucent claws, his fur the color of bark and stone, I wondered how he came to be suspended there between earth and sky, like a tiny Antaeus. Maybe he had climbed up to escape one of our cats or wriggled loose from the talons of a hawk or owl only to drop down and become entangled in those thorns he mistook for his salvation. Perhaps he had been summoned there by Apollo Smynthius, Lord of field mice and the plague, my favourite god in the story of the Greek war against the Trojans.

Studying the creature’s unnatural position, my wonder turned to pity, for death had left him in a state of indignity. Heedless of the bramble spines that scored my forearms, I reached into the thicket to dislodge him, an effort frustrated by the clumsiness of my childish fingers. I carried him away and deposited him on solid ground at last beneath a rosebush, where his tiny stink bothered no one as he returned to the soil.

I wondered if mice went to Hades, and imagined their tiny shades scrabbling about among the tall ones of famous men.”

This little piece foreshadows the whole book – the similarity of the names – Antaeus and Antinous – is hardly accidental. And Antinous, too, writing this just before he dies, is suspended between earth and sky. Compared to Hadrian, the “famous man”, he’s nothing but a field mouse.

It’s layers like this that make the book such a joy. While eminently readable, historically accurate, there are depths to discover, symbols, foreshadowings, and it’s all written beautifully, too, which made this a five star read for me.

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Review: The Hadrian Enigma by George Gardiner

An emperor’s search for love destroys the very person he most adores. Crime/mystery/romance historical fiction based upon real events and characters of pagan Rome. Set two centuries before Rome’s recognition of Christians, it is an era of intrigue, torrid relations, raging ambition, wild sensuality, & unconventional love. Caesar Hadrian’s ‘favorite’ is found one dawn beneath the waters of the River Nile. Is it a prank gone wrong, a suicide, murder, or something far more sinister? Barrister & historian, Suetonius Tranquillus, & his courtesan companion Surisca are allowed two days to uncover the truth on pain of penalty. They discover more than they bargained for ..

Review by Aleksandr Voinov

I got this book a couple months ago and started right away – then my own writing went insane and all reading fell to the wayside. I re-started about a week ago and read The Hadrian Enigma” straight through, which is always a good sign.

So, yes, I liked this book. The backcover blurb is a bit ambiguous – the investigation into the death of Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s “favourite” (read: lover) is not conducted by Emperor Hadrian himself, but rather by three men he orders to investigate. The investigating team is led by Suetonius, historian, scandal-monger and author of “Lives of the Caesars”. That, alone, is a genius idea. When I read that part – the whole set-up of Hadrian ordering Suetonius to investigate, I was immediately smitten. The novel begins with a lot of verve, told in first person, and I really enjoyed Suetonius’ voice there.

The year is 130 after Christ. Emperor Hadrian, grief-struck, orders Suetonius and a couple others to investigate the death of Antinous, who apparently drowned in the Nile. They have three days to accomplish that, and the investigation centers on the travelling court in Egypt, where several people have a stake in Antinous’ life and death. There are rivals, old enemies, politicians and courtiers, and during the course of this enormous 476 pager, the author draws a lively picture of life in the second century, court politics and the Roman and Greek world. From what I remember of my history courses, the research is spot-on, nothing struck me as wrong in the way the historical setting is presented, so full marks on the history.

When it comes to the gay elements, the book spends a fair amount of time explaining the Greek erastes/eromenos model versus the Roman “anything goes, as long as love isn’t involved and only slaves, youths and women are penetrated”. Erotic relationships are pursued with no regards to gender, race or culture, and we see people further their own agendas with sex, sex traded as a commodity, and sex as expression of love. Again, full marks on how the author treats gay history and gay culture – he gets the sexual morals of the time right, and spends a lot of time discussing sexual morals and codes of conduct of the time, and also shows characters be shocked that Hadrian and Antinous seem to have breached the Roman concept of what is proper in a relationship between an older man and a younger man – their relationship was far more reciprocal than was politic at the time. In fact, the accusation of Emperors taking the passive/female role is one of the most damning things a Roman historian could say about an emperor, just look at the character assassination of Heliogabalus/Elagabal.

This leads directly to the criticism of the novel. It’s the nature of the beast that reviews spend more time on the flaws or perceived faults of a book than what the reviewer liked, which is really unfortunate. It’s also unfortunate that I have to rate the book with the same ratings system that covers everything from fluffy little romances to all-out porn. This book is an epic undertaking of three or four years of research, and it shows. Rating that along the same lines as a formulaic historical romance or porn in historical customs is awkward.

It’s important to say what the book is not. It is not a historical romance, or even a historical m/m romance, despite what it says on the back cover. In my book, it’s a historical crime story, which happens to explore a gay relationship, in a fairly bisexual setting. The book does spend time exploring how Antinous and Hadrian “happened”, the courting, the politics, Antinous’ enemies, and discusses the sexual morals at length. There are two sex scenes, but the focus is not, like m/m romances require, on the relationship as it develops.

For once, Antinous is dead when people talk about him, and is only resurrected in the lengthy accounts of how things happened. He is talked about and the center of the novel, but not the protagonist of the novel. His lover, emperor Hadrian, remains mostly closed off. This is a relationship as witnessed, not as lived.

The author tries to get closer to the characters and lets those witnesses look into Hadrian’s and Antinous’ heads, but the way it’s told, all this has to be guesswork, because the characters themselves are not involved. Another thing – m/m romances as currently marketed and sold require a “happy ever after” or a “happy for now”. Well. Hadrian’s and Antinous’ relationship ended a few weeks before the young man’s death, with is what is being investigated. Death is a no-go area in m/m romances as they are currently sold. Death is a no-go area for the romance genre, period (as I learnt the hard way when I tried to sell “Test of Faith”).

For me, personally, it was too much history (I know, that’s a weird thing to say). There were many instances when the characters were telling the readers things about their world and culture (somebody explains in the book that the Roman world is “phallocentric” – that’s not something I expect a Roman of the 2nd sectury after Christ to say), and exploring at length and in detail themes that they would find quite natural. We never question our natural assumptions, so this felt awkward. Having Greeks talk about the erastes/eromenos model with such academic detail felt like they were doing so for the reader’s benefit, as mouthpieces of all that enormous bulk of research. This is a key challenge of writing historical characters – the research shouldn’t draw attention to itself. In this book, it sadly did.

In addition, the point of view was all over the place. We start with first person, go into third person, and then we have the lengthy interviews with the witnesses before we go back to first person to wrap things up. The characters tell things they cannot know (such as what Antinous and Hadrian were thinking/feeling). Even statements such as “he told me over a cup of wine” fail to convince. Here, the book falls short on suspending my disbelief. I know the author really wants to tell me about Antinous’/Hadrian’s emotions, but he does so in a way that breaks my fictional dream. I can’t believe a character who is clearly not (just) a character but a tool to tell things that he or she cannot possibly know. One chapter that deals with the Dacians doesn’t have a narrator at all – who’s telling this? We don’t know.

The style can be officious at times, which works for a court setting. I’d have liked it to be toned down a little. We know, for example, that Augustus, despite his drive towards “pure classical Latin” cursed like a sailor in private and spoke a gibberish of Latin and Greek. I’d expect a writer like Suetonius to write with more of a poisoned pen at times – whereas passages dealing with Antinous are more hagiographic than I’d expect from that barbed historian. He was the Perez Hilton of his time, he could easily have been more sarcastic and generally funnier. Roman wit is acerbic and devastating, and the book could have used a bit more of that – it would also be very in character for the narrator.

Overall, the book could use a good cutting – all the self-conscious history, a few characters (we really only need one Special Investigator, and possibly the helper, Surisca) and the repetitions on themes. If it has been explained what the erastes/eromenos relationship is, we don’t need that repeated several times in dialogue. People reading this kind of book can be trusted to remember such things.

In terms of plot, the book works great as a crime novel, far less so as a romance, and I could see a mainstream appeal for the book. Historical crime is big as a genre – much bigger than m/m romance.

So what we see here is a very ambitious debut which has a few, but pervasive craft issues, but it’s strong enough on other counts to still be very readable. There is an undeniable energy in the prose and writing, a fearlessness to tackle that kind of project, imagination, boldness and heartblood. If the issues mentioned above would get fixed, the POV settled, the self-conscious research sorted, the cast streamlined a bit, this would be a great book, a definitive five-star read for me and more likely than not, had potential to make it in the mainstream.

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Review: The Pleasure Slave by Jan Irving

Lucius Mettelus Carbo, once a legate on the rise in the Roman army, rescues a beautiful young prostitute, Varick, who immediately stirs him. However, Lucius doesn’t believe anyone could want him, a man cursed by the gods with an ugly, twisted leg. He resists his attraction to the pleasure slave as they forge a tempestuous relationship, and Varick tries to convince Lucius that he desires his master despite the injury. Both men are fighting their fears as they strive toward a future together… a future in the shadow of the volcano Mount Vesuvius.

Review by Erastes

I have to say up front, that however my review seems to indicate the opposite, I did enjoy reading this book, and I recommend it to anyone who likes the era.

The story takes place in Pompei, and a quick glance at the date (July 79AD) will set the scene immediately.  Volcano Day is on the way so we know our protags are going to be up against it.  However, sadly (and this is the second time in recent months that I’ve read an under representation of a cataclysmic eruption) the eruption, when it does come, is more of a damp squib than a OMG WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE and the escape seems a little too easy, considering the rain of death that was going on.

Whilst I liked both protagonists, it was difficult to cheer them along, as I didn’t know if they even knew what they wanted.  The emotions are kept very much in check, Lucius’ less so, but he keeps himself back because he doesn’t want to fall in love with a slave, and Varick’s point of view is only very lightly visited, so we don’t get into his head much at all. However, the romance is very readable, warm and arousing, and the sexual level worked well for the length of the book.  I did feel that they cared for each other and that they needed to learn to trust each other, something that didn’t come easy for either of them.

The history is good and solid–the author even makes a note that she has, for her own timeline purposes, moved the destruction of Lucius’ regiment a few years, but that’s forgiveable, the best of historical novelists do that.  I enjoyed the historical aspects of this book a lot, because I love learning things, and the history and destruction of Lucius’ regiment was fascinating. The descriptions of the town, the murals, the graffiti and the villas are convincing, and never once did I get jolted out of the story.

Historically, too, Lucius’ behaviour is very apt–he no longer considers himself a man. He’s injured, and therefore is no use (in his mind). His friends shun him and he hasn’t even taken prostitutes since his disfigurement because it reminds him of all the men and women he had – paid or otherwise – when he was whole.  The stigma of falling in love with a slave is well described too.  Shag your property by all means, but you run the risk of being laughed at if you become “indulgent with it.”

I never quite understood what happened to Lucius’ leg, though – it’s twisted and wasted but I’d have liked a bit more of what actually happened to him when he got lost during the Batavian rebellion.

It’s sometimes a frustrating read, because there seems to be something else going on under the surface which is never quite explained, and there are a couple of dialogue sections which entirely baffled me.  Perhaps it’s due to the length restriction, but I feel that if the book had been perhaps 50 pages longer, it would have felt more complete.

At 90 or so pages (yes, it says 99 but of course many of those are introduction, cover, bio etc) I would have expected a little more story for my story, but at $3.99 it’s a pleasant read which will certainly fill an hour of your life and although may not set your world on fire, it shouldn’t disappoint.

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Review: Warrior Prince by J P Bowie

Set in the early turbulent years of the Roman Empire, and seen through the eyes of three men, Warrior Prince tells the story of a love that will not be denied, of courage in the face of adversity, of political intrigue, betrayal and death. Against this backdrop of death and mayhem, Lucius and Callistus, two estranged lovers, meet at last, but can their love overcome the enormous odds they must face when it seems that every man – and the gods – are determined to tear them apart once more?

Review by Vashtan

Dear FBI,

I got this book for free from Erastes for the purpose of the review. If you do come knocking, please arrive in the morning, so you don’t interrupt the writing. And – may I take my bonsai? He’s been looking down, lately.

Yours sincerely,

Vashtan

I must admit I’m torn on this. I Googled (and binged) reviews for “Warrior Prince” to help me form an opinion. It didn’t help. I have notes and thoughts and I’m still torn. I’ll likely remain torn on this. While this book didn’t work for me at all, I know there are many people who will enjoy this. So I will write a lot about how it didn’t work for me and why, and then rate it three stars, because it is exactly what it wants to be, and the misfortune is that I don’t like what it is.

This is the story of Lucius Tullius, a Capuan (not a Roman) middle-class youth who was one of the protagonists of “Slaves to Love”, the first part of this  “Warrior Prince” is the sequel of that book. The first part of “Slaves to Love” develops the love story between Lucius Tullius and the Gallic noble Callistus, who is a gladiator, joins Spartacus’ rebellion, then returns home, leaving behind a heart-broken Lucius.

In “Warrior Prince”, Lucius hears stories that Callistus is fighting against the Romans in Gaul, and joins the army to be reunited with his lost love.

History first: so far, this seems fair enough; while I doubt very much that our “hero”, Lucius Tullius, could just join the Roman army a bit for a couple years and then just leave, and then re-enlist on a whim, that is something I’d need to check more closely. Roman soldiers served for a long, long time, and at least 6 years according to one source I have here. But it doesn’t matter, because Bowie is being very vague on the history anyway. It’s the Late Roman Republic (rather than the Roman Empire as the blurb claims – that happens later), and Capua, but there are very few in-depth details. The military service is just a backdrop, and shows us a Roman army that is staggeringly incompetent, undisciplined and so corrupt that only the vainglorious, stupid and self-absorbed rise to any kind of importance. Doesn’t really matter, this is what I call “history light.” It’s not blatantly wrong, but the feel isn’t quite right – there’s an absence of the “telling detail” or an insight into the depicted culture or time, and the small details are left out and nebulous, which often happens with writers who don’t care that much about the period to get the small stuff right.

I’ve read much, much worse, but it didn’t grip me.

The story is told in first person by the main characters (and a Roman officer called Flavius, who I found insignificant to the plot and unbelievable as an officer, a military man, a Roman citizen and a member of the social elite), who endlessly reflect on what has just happened, so this feels very repetitive, like the author wants to make sure we don’t get lost in the plot. The way these characters speak didn’t ring very authentic to me, nor what they say or how they frame it, but at least they are not totally modern characters.

The writing. To state up front, I’m a voracious reader. I love to read. It’s a bad sign if I keep checking how many pages I have to trawl through. In this case, that “oh dear, still X pages left” started from pretty much page 1.

Why? For my personal taste, the style is simply schmoopy. The emotions are over-the-top, the characters spend forever thinking about how much they love each other and how wonderful the other is, to which my mind responds with: “I get it, he’s great and you love him, can we please now get to the meat of the story? Please?” The characters seem to spend 50% of their time pining for each other:

Never would I forget that first moment when his lips met mine in a kiss that had set my senses reeling, and my body on fire with a passion that had never abated. The memory of the time we had spent together making love would live with me for all time, and diminish any other moment spent in another’s arms. Sometimes I would curse him for having given me a taste of a rapture I could never again experience. But then I would immerse myself in the memories of his smile, of his strength and of his sweetness of nature that had brought me from mere infatuation to a deep, abiding love of the man he truly was.

And

Belenus was brought to me, saddled and bridled, and as I swung myself up onto his back, I thought for the thousandth time of Lucius, and how he had looked astride the steed on the day I sent him back to his family. I hoped he had forgiven me for taking Belenus from him after our last night together. I urged Belenus forward, and the men gathered behind me to watch what they imagined would be a very short conference with the emissary that now cantered toward the camp. I knew him before he got near, and for a moment my heart stopped in my chest and my breath caught in my throat.

“Lucius…”

His name was torn from my lips as my eyes took in every part of his face and form. Despite the fact that he was wearing a Roman soldier’s uniform, I could tell he had not changed one whit in the years that had passed since our last all-too-brief meeting. As he drew abreast of me, I could see those same shining brown eyes now fixed upon mine, and the same sweet smile I remembered each time he looked at me.

Oh, Lucius, what have you done? Why are you here on this field that will soon be covered in blood, and the bodies of men? But of course, I knew the reasons, and as he gazed at me with an expression of longing and love, I felt my loins burn with lust, and the need to crush him in my arms and cover his face and body with my lips.

I know this kind of writing works for some, but I find it grating and much prefer realistically depicted, believable emotion. The sex scenes and writing seemed quite repetitive to me, too. I was tempted to start a drinking game – one shot of vodka for every time an embrace is described with the words “I was a willing prisoner in his arms” or a variation of that. I would easily have got through three bottles before the book was up. I’m totally okay with having only a couple sex scene, as long as those are smoking hot and mean something. Here, they are just “proof of how much they love each other” and the sexual spark hits the moment gay or gay-inclined men look at each other – no more meaning or relevance than that.

The characters. Lucius Tullius is 26 years old and has the emotional maturity of a 14 year old girl. There is a lot of blushing and tears in this book, many, many “I love you!”s and Lucius to me comes across not as a full-grown man, but a child, a push-over, whose main aim is to have sex with the love of his life, the barbarian prince Calllistus. It’s good for him he also has the famous self-lubricating anus – the sex scene sometimes involve a little spit or rimming beforehand, but there are several instances in the book where Lucius takes it like a girl, without preparation. Little Lucius has no mettle whatsoever, or at least I just don’t believe he does. When he thinks he’s cunning, he really is not. If the author tells us he’s tough, he really isn’t (or maybe show me some basic training/army life in the late Republican army), and I never liked him. I had no chance to. He never really struggled, and it takes more than a lot of luck and a lot of whining for me to feel with a character. Every time Lucius gets in a tight spot, he’s rescued by happy coincidence, which will not only solve all his problems, but often reward him in some way, too. This rather reads like the story of a pampered pet that ends up in a spot of bother and then is rescued by some deus ex machina with no credit to his own mettle.

In short, I really couldn’t get into the character. I disbelieved him going through army life, and to me, he wasn’t a believable male character of the time. I think I may have winced when he told us he treats his slaves like “friends” and “servants”, he disagrees with slavery, and treats his slaves like confidantes (in “Slaves to Love”, he just lets one of his own slaves join the forces of Spartacus and wishes him luck on the way).

That kind of anachronistic thinking stretches to other characters. We have Flavius, a Roman character so blown away by Callistus’ charisma that he would rather serve him than Rome. O-kay.

Callistus, the Gaul, is the cliché of the “noble savage”. He’s more honourable, humane, and everything else than any Roman character in the book. He’s just so great that everybody respects and loves and follows him, even the few Romans who aren’t simply evil and incompetent. Never mind he’s shagging an enemy who could be a spy. Never mind that, according to what I’ve read, Germanic tribes killed homos. Here, nobody seems to care much (at least, Callistus is shagging his little Lucius behind closed doors/inside his tent).

The sex: lots of “willing prisoners”, lots of quick shags that did nothing to me – they were too purple, for once, too over-the-top, with self-lubricating anuses, people crying out each other’s names and “I love you!” all the time, and miraculous recovery times (well, I guess those Gauls are just *better* at recovering).

Now, the good bits. It’s well-edited, and the cover is ok. It has a discernible plot, so you can read this without wondering what the hell you’re doing. The history in broad strokes is enough to make this “history light”. It is a fluffy romance, written like a fluffy romance, with over-the-top emotions, a manly man, and a little boy (who’s legal age for sex), and if you like that kind of dynamics, you can’t go wrong here.

To sum up: History-light costume piece in the sentimental romance tradition narrated from a number of first-person POVs, with plenty of sex, over-the-top emotions, much pining, a hard-warrior-and-pliant-eager-boy dynamic and characters that often feel anachronistic but few glaring errors. Many settings and scenes are very vague (like Roman army life and warfare); the good people are very good, the bad people are very bad. I could see the plot twists come for a mile or two, but it is an art form to give the reader exactly what they are expecting, and many readers like that.

It didn’t work for me and I was glad it was over, but I know there are people out there who will enjoy this kind of book, so I rate it with three stars. It’s solidly made for what it wants to be.

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Review: The Tortured Secutor by Jardonn Smith

In third century Rome, being a freedman doesn’t exempt you from punishment, even when you’ve done nothing wrong. This is the story of a gladiator granted his freedom by an Emperor, only to be caught up in the web of a treacherous patrician whose wife has been murdered. He abducts the gladiator and tortures him – only to discover taht some men will not talk, whether they know the answer or not. Powerful forces are at work. But can one strong man hold out long enought for the good to put their plan into action?

Review by Vashtan

Disclosure first: Erastes received the book from the author and passed it to Vashtan solely for the purpose of this review.

To be frank, I struggle putting into words what I feel about this book. It’s usually a bad sign if I need longer than a week for a slim book.(145 pages)  This took almost three. After reading the first third of it, I just didn’t want to go back. I made a valiant effort to finish it a week ago, and just finished the last third. I do believe that you cannot review a book you haven’t actually finished, so I read everything to the last page.

I may revise the policy.

If a writer fails over the first 50 pages in a 150-page book, it’s highly unlikely they turn the ship around in the last 100 pages. And the longer the pain drags on, the less charitable the review. Sometimes, reviewers do feel angry after reading a bad book, it’s the nature of the world.

This is the story of the gladiator Philokrates and the physician Artimos. Both men meet after death in the Elysian Fields, and tell us their story. I think. Because there wasn’t really much story. After the gladiator gets freed by the Emperor after the games, and falls in love with his physician who looks after the gladiators, they get into trouble with a corrupt trader who wants to frame the gladiator’s co-gladiator for murder of his wife, and has the gladiator and the physician abducted and tortured.

The plot then kinda meanders a little, but gets resolved off-camera. The troublemaker dies, our couple receive gifts, go to parties, and that’s the end of it. I must admit I found the story very dull – there’s just no arch to it, as if the writer wasn’t interested much in the story her/himself. What the author was interested in are a couple of graphic scenes where muscular men get crucified, tied up, beaten and tortured, and the rest of the “novel” only serves as backdrop to provide excuses for those scenes. So this is very much about the kink and not at all about the story or the characters. Which begs the question why write a novel at all rather than a number of short stories with a graphic torture scene?

Another thing: The Nazca Plains Corporation seems to take the editing part of the publishing business quite lightly. This is the second book by them I’ve read that is sloppily edited, and they don’t seem to have a standard formatting, either. This book’s paragraphs are all disconnected by blank lines, something I‘m more used to seeing in ebooks rather than print books. The editing overall didn’t look at style, either. I found the style bloated, monotonous and dull – a good editor with some good cutting could have saved the book, possibly. If an editor had found all the weird shifts in point-of-view, language misuse, typos, the gushing about “masculine beauty” and assorted purple prose (I get it, the author doesn’t have to repeat it over and over and over again), fixed the sloppily-structured so-called “plot”, the characters’ motivation…. This might have turned out readable.

Then there’s the cover – while not horrendous and certainly not a Poser cover, it still looks cheap and tacky. Not a cover I’d want to be seen with out on the street.

Research. The author made some attempt to research. From the very setup of this book, it would have been a tough book to write. Very tough, in fact. We’re dealing with two first person narrators, one a learned man and one a rough gladiator. The author makes some attempt to have one speak more educated and more poetically, whereas the gladiator is more vulgar. They still ‘sound’ the same, like the same person tried very hard to change his voice a little. Getting a first person voice of a historical character right is a massive challenge – you try and mimic how people spoke, and what they would have said how. Smith didn’t. After a few attempts to do that, we get words like “okay”, and anachronisms galore.

Now, what happens. While revelling in getting people horrendously injured (the gladiator gets his Achilles tendon severed and his ankle pretty much turned into mush during a torture scene), Smith fixes these people quite quickly, too. Apparently, a physician in 3rd century Rome could sew an Achilles tendon back together, and operate a massively fractured ankle bone, put it into plaster, and the gladiator is fine after a few days or a week. There are people that survive having spikes driven through the abdominal cavity, and in general, this physician is a hundred times better than any Roman physician that I read about.

While there is some research, it falls flat when we have Romans use mahogany (they must have sneakily crossed the Atlantic to get the wood from South and Central America), and the way that gladiatorial games are portrayed doesn’t hold up. Another thing: the characters count time in minutes (maybe they invented a wrist-watch, or the sun dials were way more precise than I though). We have minor characters called Tacitus and Ovid (Ovid isn’t the author of “The Metamorphoses” as you might have thought, but “The Annihilator”, another gladiator), and Tacitus the historian would probably turn in his urn if he knew what his namesake is up to in this book.

I struggle finding a passage that sums up this book. Maybe you want one of the torture scenes?

Once again our Roman guards, a new pair coming on duty for the evening shift, seized Philo and hung him by his wrists onto the overhead spike. One stood behind Philo, clamping his hands onto Philo’s thighs; the other stood in front, pounding him with fists. “No bone,” said the one from behind, and the punches were concentrated on his belly. Philo’s hard and stretched muscle was pounded with meaty fists from below his sternum to above his pelvis, and with no way to draw up his legs or move forward, back or side to side, Philo took these punches with nothing but muscle for defense.

He wanted to puke, but there was nothing inside his belly to puke. All he could do was tighten himself, groan upon impact, grunt upon impact, and stare past the Roman guard throwing punches into him. Guard’s name? Drusus Macarius, and if ever a man could have lived his previous life as a bull and bring with him in this life these same physical traits as a human, that would be Drusus. With broad and compact chest, bulging and rounded shoulders supporting massive arms carved from central limbs of a mighty oak tree, Drusus’s thick-skinned, bony-knuckled fists penetrated like a battering ram.

The method and intent of Drusus and his assistant was not one of beating the man, questioning him, and then beating him some more until he answered correctly. No, initiation to the Ludus Magnus for an obstinate slave simply involved a continuous beating until either he voluntarily begged for an end to it with promises of good behavior, or until he passed out. As Philo took a barrage of punishing blows from left and right, he gave no indication he was anywhere near the point of surrender. It was as though he intended to die before giving in. Drusus threw his arsenal of straight punches, hooks and uppercuts with precise accuracy to the left of Philo’s navel, to the right, below it and above, but Philo showed no signs of weakening. With every muscle tensed from his forearms to the calves of his legs, his fists clenched and toes curled, Philo stared blankly, glassy-eyed, his mind seemingly elsewhere. In fact, Philo’s eyes, when opened and not clenched shut from pain, fixated upon me. He gazed past Drusus and concentrated on me.

Perhaps this was because I dressed differently than Drusus — he covered with leather around his waist, sandals on his feet and nothing else; I covered in tunic of brown wool from shoulder to knee, a corded fabric belt around my waist — but I believe that Philo more than likely saw in me a reason for hope. My expression could not lie. It saddened me that he suffered. It was my fault that he suffered, my decision to let him sleep rather than warning him of where I would touch him that brought about his second round of punishment, and I am certain Philo used my frown and the slow turn of my head left to right as his strength. I am also certain my image was the first sign of compassion shown him in many a day, and although I was mostly powerless to help him, I did have one option to use after giving Drusus and his partner a few minutes to make their point.” (Page 16-17)

Coming to the sex, the torture scenes were clearly meant to titillate, and if there’s no torture involved, the sex is rare, brushed over and fairly bland when it happens. It did nothing for me.

In short, a book that clearly makes some effort to be historical in the large picture, but pretty much all details are wrong. All this could have been forgiven if it had been really well-written or well-constructed (I’m happy to forgive wrong details if the author gives me a cracking good read otherwise), but as it stands, this just wasn’t very good.

Who would I recommend this to? People who like torture scenes and have a torture kink, but even those may want to skip the bits in between.

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Review: Slaves to Love: 1 and 2 by J P Bowie

Raised in the city of Capua, renowned for its gladiator training grounds—Lucius, a young patrician, is unprepared for the obsessive desire that almost overwhelms him when he first sees Callistus, a captive Gaul condemned to a life, and probable death, in the arena. Unsuccessful in his attempt to buy Callistus and save him from a premature death, Lucius instead follows his career, attending all of his bouts in the arena, including one with Spartacus, the rebel slave. Spartacus incites Callistus and his fellow gladiators to rebel and form an unbeatable army, almost bringing the Roman legions to their knees.

Although torn between his love for Callistus and loyalty to his friends and family, Lucius determines that before one, or both of them might die, he must find Callistus, confess his feelings, and spend at least one night in the arms of the man he loves.

When Damian, a young artist, is commissioned to sculpt the image of Demetrios, Rome’s current darling of the arena, he finds himself falling in love with the handsome gladiator. Despite his father’s vow to disown him, Damian follows his heart—and when he and Demetrios are caught in the conflagration that threatens to destroy Rome, their love for one another gives them the strength to survive the flames.

But their future together looks uncertain when Damian, rounded up along with Christians accused of setting the fire, is separated from Demetrios and forced into a fight to the death in the arena.

Review by Alex Beecroft

‘Slaves to Love’ is a beautifully written book consisting of two novellas. The linking factor which connects the two stories is the fact that in each story a youth of a Patrician Roman family falls in love with a gladiator.

In the first story, Lucius and Callistus, patrician Lucius, a rather limp youth, falls for a barbarian warrior, Callistus. Callistus is a barbarian chieftain, captured in the wars and forced to fight as a gladiator. He soon becomes involved with fellow gladiator Spartacus’s rebellion, and clearly leads a much more exciting life than Lucius, who is a (lackadaisical) teacher. The big drawback of this story, to me, is that all the exciting things are happening off camera, as it were. We are riding along in Lucius’ point of view, while he worries about his big brave man away at the war, but we don’t get to see any of the action.

In point of fact, Callistus treats Lucius exactly as a traditional hero treats his lady; he keeps the youth away from any danger, sends him home and refuses to allow him to participate in Callistus’ dangerous life at all. I believe this is meant to be romantic of him, but it’s exactly the sort of example of one person refusing to allow another person to live their own life and make their own decision that the rather heavy handed anti-slavery message of the story denounces. The lovers are so star crossed and so hobbled by Callistus’ refusal to treat Lucius as a man – and Lucius’ spineless acceptance of this ‘chivalry’ – that *spoiler warning* if one of the things you demand in a romance is a happy ending, you’re not going to like this at all. *End spoiler*

J.P Bowie writes with such authority about the period that I hesitate to wonder if any Roman youth, particularly of a patrician family, could be as passive as Lucius. But still I can’t help but find it odd. Taking orders from a barbarian slave? It really didn’t work for me at all.

I was also not at all happy by the fact that all the women in this story were bitches. In a climate where m/m is often attacked as misogynistic, I would find it hard to defend this story.

Which was unfortunate, because as I say the research seems impeccable, and the author has the most beautiful, powerful writing style. I desperately wanted to like the story, but I couldn’t.

Fortunately, there is a second story. The story of Damian and Demetrios is much more to my taste. We do start off with a similar setup – Damian is a high class boy starting out as a sculptor, and Demetrios is a gladiator. But almost everything I didn’t like in the first story is overturned in this. Damian reacts to being thwarted by growing a backbone, becoming active in the story and beginning to shape his own destiny. Demetrios tries the high handed ‘I’m letting you go for your own sake’ tactic, but eventually gives in to Damian’s persistence. They go into peril and adventure together, and when one goes into exile the other goes with him. It almost seems a reward for their persistence that this story does have a happy ending.

Oh, and Damian’s sister, Portia, turns out not to be a bitch after all, so even there I have nothing at all to complain about.

I sincerely hope that the second story was written after the first and represents the author growing into a m/m sensibility where nobody has to be the damsel in distress. If that’s the case, the combination of gorgeous writing, wonderful world-building, and likeable characters makes this one a winner and a definite sign of a rising star to come.

Author’s website

Lucius & Castillus  Manloveromance

Damian and Demetrios  Manloveromance

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