Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Spartacus: Morituri by Mark Morris

A bit too familiar and predictable
Spartacus: Morituri, published in 2012, is the second of two official companion novels associated with the Spartacus television series from the Starz cable network. If you haven’t seen the show, stop reading this review and go seek out the DVDs. This book is strictly for fans of the series. Those who enjoy the show and are eager for more blood, sweat, and wine will find their parched throats only adequately moistened, their thirsts not entirely quenched.

The novel takes place at some point in the latter half of season one. Spartacus has defeated Theokoles to become the Champion of Capua, while Crixus lies injured in the infirmary. The story opens with Batiatus shopping at a slave auction, where he is outbid by a mysterious Greek. This newcomer, named Hieronymus, intends to open a new ludus in Capua, to rival the existing gladiatorial houses of Batiatus and Solonius. Though the two experienced lanistae fear little from this novice and his untrained stock of fighters, Hieronymus soon proves quite successful at his newly chosen profession. His gladiators, nicknamed morituri—those who are about to die—perform above and beyond expectations. Is this good fortune the result of beginner’s luck, or, as many suspect, a product of black magic?

The Spartacus television series presented a unique vision of the ancient Roman Empire, replete with graphic sex and violence and populated by dozens of fascinating characters. Fans of the show who read this book can’t help but enjoy a return to that vivid world. Yet there is such a thing as being too faithful to the source material. This novel reads like a collection of familiar scenes that have been snipped from the show and reassembled into an all-too-familiar knockoff. Batiatus, in hopes of acquiring some much needed coin, entertains a wealthy dignitary by throwing an orgiastic party where he presents his gladiatorial stock. How many times did we see that in seasons one and two? Naevia nurses Crixus, Solonius hits on Lucretia, and Oenomaus cracks his whip like they’ve all done dozens of times before. There’s little attempt here to try anything new. The author does introduce one real-life historical Roman personage into the proceedings, but he’s mostly a bystander and not integral to the plot. There is a thread of mystery throughout the book, as the gladiators of Batiatus fall prey to an unknown illness, but this puzzle turns out to be about as baffling as a Scooby-Doo caper, and the reader will surely solve the mystery six or seven chapters before Spartacus does. In fact, many of the intended surprises are foreshadowed so heavily—“hint, hint: this guy’s going to die”—that one can see the twists and turns coming a mile away.

Part of the problem, of course, is that author Mark Morris basically has his hands tied. The novel can’t interfere with the continuity of the TV series, so the end result of the story is destined to maintain the status quo. When an unfamiliar gladiator enters the story, one can be sure that his fate will be the same as any nameless red-shirted crew member of the Starship Enterprise. However, the first novel to be set in this world, Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by J.M. Clements, did a much better job of pushing the envelope and demonstrating that it’s possible to breathe new life into these characters. Clements was also better at capturing the gritty yet decadent atmosphere of the show and duplicating its clever dialogue. After reading Swords and Ashes, I wondered why they didn’t publish more books to accompany this wonderful television series. After reading Morituri, I kind of understand why they stopped at two.

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