Friday, November 1, 2013

Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by J.M. Clements

A tasty fix for sword-and-sandal addicts
Spartacus: Swords and Ashes, published in 2012, is the first novel to be offered as an official companion to the Spartacus TV series from the Starz network. It is not a novelization of a pre-existing script, but rather an original adventure featuring characters from the series. If you’ve never seen the show, don’t read this book, but start watching the videos immediately! For fans of the series who just can’t satisfy their Spartacus addiction, set to reading and see needs gratified.

This story takes place about midway through season one. Crixus is injured, Spartacus is the Champion of Capua, and he has asked Batiatus to search for his wife. One of the great things about season one was the way all the gladiators schemed and fought against one another. That’s not possible here, however, because the events of the book can’t contradict the continuity of the television series, and everything has to even out in the end. So several new characters are introduced for the show’s regulars to interact and spar with. Pelorus, a ludista in Neapolis, is killed by one of his slaves, a mysterious tattooed barbarian priestess. Batiatus, his childhood friend, travels to the coastal city to attend the funeral, accompanied by his wife Lucretia and her friend Ilithyia. He also brings along a few gladiators to perform in games of tribute, among them Spartacus, Varro, and Barca. The planned festivities prove to be no simple exhibition match, however, and the delegation from Capua soon discovers that the House of Pelorus is fraught with secrets, treachery, and lies.

Like the TV show, there are frequent scenes of gratuitous sex and violence in this novel, though of course they’re not quite as much fun on the printed page as they are on a high-def flat screen. The book is definitely much talkier than the show, but it still admirably captures the overall atmosphere and tone of the series. Author J.M. Clements does an excellent job of writing dialogue that sounds like it’s coming right out of the actors’ mouths. In fact, despite the photo on the cover, you can even tell he was writing for the Andy Whitfield Spartacus rather than the Liam McIntyre Spartacus. Clements doesn’t just settle for a routine rehash of the show’s stories and themes. I was pleasantly surprised by how ambitious the book was. The plot is complex, even to the point of confusion at times. There is a definite effort made to educate the reader about ancient Roman customs, such as funerary practices and slave law. Clements introduces into the mix the famous Roman statesman Cicero, who engages the rest of the cast in philosophical discussions on the ethics of slavery. Though the book succeeds as an adventure independent of its source, it cleverly plays off of events from the TV show, even foreshadowing developments to come in future seasons.

As a spin-off to the excellent television series, the novel can’t help but be inferior to its source of inspiration. Nevertheless, though it’s by no means a masterpiece, Spartacus fans will enjoy this take on their beloved series. A second companion novel, Spartacus: Morituri, was published later in 2012. Unfortunately, now that the series has come to an end, it appears those two books are all we’re going to get. That’s a shame, because the Roman Empire envisioned by Steven S. DeKnight for the Spartacus series is a world full of fun and exciting possibilities, as this book aptly proves.

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