(suggested) reading level/age: 15+
(suggested) interest age: 15+
Themes: *fighting , blood + gore, violence, sexual references
Review by Rebecca Roberts
Gladiatrix is the story of sisters Rhiannon and Heledd – a story that takes us from Ynys Môn under the rule of the Druidic tribe, the Orddwig, to Rome and Halicarnassus in Turkey. After the Roman army under the leadership of Suetonius Paulinus massacres their community, Rhiannon and Heledd also expect to die under the sword. But their own prowess as fighters earns them a reprieve and they are sent to Rome and trained to be gladiatrix, to fight in front of the crowds in the amphitheatre.
I’m not one for sharing detailed plot recaps in reviews, so I’ll simply say that the plot, as in every book by Bethan Gwanas, is tight and every chapter is filled with emotion, excitement and tension. I devoured the book – once I began reading it was hard to stop. Several times I had a lump in my throat, or punched the air in glee. The main characters are vivid and real, and I was genuinely sad to see some of them face the chop. (No spoilers from me – read it to find out who survives and who gets a trident to the throat!)
It's a historical adventure novel, and I really enjoyed the way Gwanas managed to incorporate several important historical figures -Suetonius Paulinus, Boudica, Caradog, Spartacus – into the narrative and portrayed the day-to-day lives of characters in Ynys Môn and Rome without slowing down the plot. Her thorough research is evident, and the sections where she depends more on her imagination and theorising (as the Celts were not keepers of written records) are convincing. The writing appeals to all the senses, and is so evocative that at times I felt as though I was standing side-by-side with the characters.
Despite the violence of the period, and the sadness of the characters as they watched their family and peers die one by one, it is not a dark nor sombre novel. It is a novel about sisterhood, and learning to forgive and to survive. If it’s not completely obvious by now, I absolutely loved it. Well done, Gwanas – this is your best book yet.
Review by MORGAN DAFYDD
“Father to a murdered son. Husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
If you recognize that iconic line, you’ll know that it comes from one of the best films of all time – Gladiator. Well now you can forget about Rusell Crowe, because we’ve got our very own book about Gladiators now thanks to Bethan Gwanas – and it’s brilliant. Its shows how good original Welsh novels can be.
What little information I had about Gladiators pretty much came from cartoons like Asterix vs Julius Caesar. I’d never quite realised that they were, in fact, slaves, and I certainly didn’t know that there were females Gladiators too! That’s so cool. (or unfortunate for them, depending on which way you look at it!) So the title, Gladiatrix, is the word for female Gladiators and I think it works really well as a title. It has clout. It definitely stands out on the shelves amongst loads of samey Welsh book titles. The beautiful artwork too is just begging to be picked up and purchased.
I also knew very little about the Druids who also appear in the novel, but to be fair, no one is quite sure about them, because the evidence is quite sparse. I like how she interpreted them, anyway.
Now I'm not suggesting for a moment that a fictional novel like Gladiatrix is going to give you a precise historical account of the period, because that's not what it’s for. Despite the fact that it’s just pure easy-read entertainment, I feel like I've come to know more about these turbulent times in our history a little better, and if anything, it's made me eager to learn more. Living a stone's throw away from Caerhun (Canovium was the Roman name), the evidence of their time here is all around us, if you know where to look.
As Bethan herself says, much of our information about this early period is very fragmented, and sometimes there are no records at all. Obviously then, she's taken little pieces of history, and with a little bit of fill in the blanks and some artistic licence, she’s managed to weave an excellent and utterly believable story around the facts. A lot of meticulous research has gone into this book, and the attention to detail is commendable. (it took about two years to write the novel, so fair play!)
I’m not going to say much more than what it does on the blurb, to avoid ruining it. What I can say, is that it revolves around two teenage sisters, Rhiannon and Heledd, who were living quite contentedly on Anglesey, with the rest of the Orddwig tribe and their ‘wise’ old leaders… until the Romans show up. Yes, the Roman army has arrived right on their doorstep. Oh dear. But to think how serious this is, the response from the island natives is quite laughable! As Suetonius Paulinus marches his troops ever closer, the islanders engage in some bizarre pagan rituals, in the hope that their sacrifices will be enough to save them. 'The Romans haven’t got a hope in hell’ they say. Oh lord, they’ve no idea what’s coming for them…
When they do finally come face to face with ruthless Roman military force, the sisters are captured and before being taken far far away. After living freely all their lives, they must let all that go, and accept the fact that they are prisoners and will be forced to fight as Gladiators to entertain the Romans. Death might have actually been a blessing.
When Gladiators meet in the arena, with the crowd baying for blood, only one competitor is ever likely to come out alive. It’s kill or be killed in the amphitheatre and weakness is fatal. How far will the two sisters be willing to go?
I’ll say no more. Other than the fact that BG knocks you for six several times. I was on tenterhooks throughout most of the novel, and some bits of it are enough to make you sick! (though, I must admit, I love all the violence, blood and gore!)
Who’s the audience?
This is a topic that always gets a bit of discussion going among bookworms. In the case of this book, it’s what I call an OI! Book. (that’s Oedolion Ifanc = Young Adult) But does there need to be a label at all? Ok, so the main characters are teenage girls, but the book will appeal to a wider audience. In fact, I can’t stress enough that adults should read it too. It’d be a huge shame if they didn’t, simply because it’s located on YA shelves. If anything, books in this category are much better – they get straight to the action usually, and there’s less waffle.
The author has already proven herself a dab hand at writing fantasy stories that hook you in from the first page and leave you desperate for more. The Melanai series was great, but Gladiatrix goes a step further and is darker and bloodier.
What a shame that S4C hasn’t got Hollywood budget, because this is the type of story that would make a hell of a movie! We had fun at the launch event discussing which Welsh actors could play the different characters! Mici Plwm as a pompous Roman general perhaps? Martin Sheen in some capacity? Who could play the sisters I wonder?
Because of the fighting, the violence, the bloodshed and the executions the book won't be for everyone, but if you like things like Vikings, Game of Thrones, The 300, Spartacus etc., then you’ll definitely get on with this one. But, remember, amidst the horrors of the situation, this is essentially a story about two sisters, their strength and will to survive.
I haven't wanted to read much lately, probably because I can’t keep my eyes open past 8pm (we’ve a 5-month yr old in the house so need I say more?). But this was the book to change that, because I read it all in a couple of days, and it’s given me the kick in the arse I needed to get reading again. Thank you, Bethan.
No word of a lie; my favourite novel of 2023. It’s got blood, guts and Gladiators - what more could you ask for?