12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
I'm so tired of cliched historical romances that seem to be written by Publishing Company Autobot 3000. Regency bluestocking spinster who's beautiful even though she doesn't think so? Check. Wicked but kind-hearted rake with friends or relatives ready-made for sequels? Check. One reason I love romances that come out from smaller e-presses is that they're quirkier and more interesting. If you're like me and bored with the same old romances, I highly recommend that you check out Cassandra Dean's "Enslaved." It's a cool, fun novella set in ancient Rome, a time period you don't often see in this genre.
Another one of my complaints with romance novels is that the happy ending often feels tacked on- that the characters don't earn their HEA. That is not the case in "Enslaved." Both the hero and heroine have very satisfying character arcs in this. And it does a great job of avoiding most Roman era cliches. There's no Christians, no evil emperors, no cheesy orgies, or freedom-loving barbarians mucking about in the wilderness. This is impressive especially for a first-time author- in fact it completely defied my expectations.
At first it starts out a bit like "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" fanfiction- which is not entirely a bad thing as I love that show. But then it leaves the gladiatorial school, and it takes on a life of its own. I've read my share of gladiator romances, but this book zigged when I thought it would zag. The plot takes unpredictable twists and turns, and I found that delightful. It's really cool to read a romance where you literally have no idea what's going to happen next.
The basic plot goes like this (there's a few spoilers here, but I don't want to give too much away): Lucia, a sweet nerdy girl, the daughter of a rich lanista (a gladiator trainer), is told by her dad to tutor a new gladiator named Marcus in the Roman ways of religion/mythology. Their relationship develops over many years, and it's a very slow and intense burn...
But they're separated, as Lucia is forced into a loveless marriage with a handsome but inept politician, but she doesn't forget Marcus as she battles her crippling depression. After her husband leaves her because she's "morose," she's reunited with Marcus- who is now a merchant- and they struggle to figure out their new relationship against the expectations of Lucia's family and the pressure of societal expectations.
It's told in first person, which is not to everyone's taste, but I think it works really well here, since you really get into Lucia's head. It's atmospheric... and filled with exquisitely rendered emotion that makes you feel every awful thing Lucia endures (without being bombastic or purple). Her depression is a tangible thing, and I thought that was an interesting topic to handle in a historical romance. At one point I even wondered if Lucia had actually had a chance at having a happier marriage with her husband- since, even though he's a bit of a jerk, he's also depicted as attractive and interested in having sex with her- but if their relationship was sabotaged by her depression and her inability to help his career. It felt very realistic.
In regards to Ms. Dean's writing style, the dialogue is a bit more mannered and formal than I'm used to, but that is a direct homage to the dialogue used in the "Spartacus" TV show. The writing, on the whole, is impressive. It manages to be both finely crafted, nuanced, and spare. In fact, some of the restraint used in the prose is breathtaking. It's tense, understated and incredibly sexy.
When Marcus and Lucia finally do have sex, it's smoking hot. There's also some exciting action scenes in the arena. And for a book that takes place over eleven years, the pacing is fantastic and doesn't miss a beat. However, I did want to see more action in the ending, most of this happens off screen, and it feels like a bit of a cheat. But the HEA was super satisfying.
Other than that, my biggest problem was that some of the historical background was off. This was a bit annoying at first. It's pretty vague as to when it took place, and where it was set. It's clearly during the Empire... Lucia even has a horse called "Emperor." But I don't know if she was in Italy or somewhere in the provinces. She lives in a city called Astana, which must be fictional, because the only Astana I could find is in Kazakhstan.
The same frustrating vagueness is evident in Marcus's background. He's from Thrace... so why does he have a Roman name, and why does he need tutoring in Roman religion? Lucia's dad calls him "Crassus" in the arena, and I have my doubts about this being a suitable name for a gladiator. The most famous Crassus- Marcus Licinius Crassus, played by Olivier in Kubrick's "Spartacus"- was generally known after his death as Caesar's unlucky triumvir, the unscrupulous millionaire with the first fire-fighting company who died (or so legend goes) when the Parthians captured him in battle and poured gold down his throat. I think a name like that would cause more snickers than anything else.
It's also bit distracting that many of the names of the other characters come straight from the most recent sword n' sandals movies and TV shows. There's a Meridius ("Gladiator") a Niobe, a Vorenus and a Pullo (HBO's "Rome") a Glaber, a Lucretia and a Bariatus (all from "Spartacus: Blood and Sand"- and `Bariatus' is only one letter away from John Hannah's character Batiatus). And speaking of Spartacus, "Enslaved" also repeats one of the problems seen in that show- lanistae were not nobles, and they could never rise that high socially. They were infames, along with actors, criminals, spendthrifts, and debtors. Infamia was a moral stigma, mandated by law, which resulted in a diminished state of citizenship.
However, historical goofs asides, this is a solid story, and I was able to get past this once I became invested in the characters. I've read really well-researched novels that are also dry and dull, but "Enslaved" was compelling, moving, and rang emotionally true. I wish that more romances were like this.
There's going to be a sequel, and I'm definitely looking forward to it.