Review: Spartacus: Swords and Ashes
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It's a tits, tans and testosterone filled version of ancient Rome; the offspring of Spartacus and Jersey Shore, if you will...
Spartacus - Swords and Ashes is not simply an adaptation from the TV series, but is an original tale that seems to take place in the time period between Spartacus : Blood and Sand and Spartacus: Vengence. The gladiator Spartacus is still in the ‘employ’ of Quintus Batiatus, who is desperate to acquire the wealth from the estate of a murdered nobleman Pelorus. His murderer, Medea, is condemned to die for her crime in the arena, along with all the household slaves. It is here that Spartacus first crosses paths with the mysterious Medea. The plot twists and turns via the both literal and metaphorical backstabbing that viewers of the television series will be familiar with.
When picking up the book the first thing of note is the choice of image for the front cover. Andy Whitfield who played the role of Spartacus in the first series died in 2011 from Leukaemia and has now been replaced by Liam McIntyre who is over a decade younger, much slighter and, well to be honest, so pretty that he should be a sure thing for the lead in the next Twilight movie. An opportunity has been missed to pay tribute to Whitfield by placing him on the front cover in favour of McIntyre, who does his best to glower broodingly but compared to Whitfield, does not cut the mustard (or should that be jugular?). Anyhow, I digress... into the book.
The description of surroundings and ‘stuff’ - clothing, buildings, weapons etc - are greatly detailed and really enable the reader to envisage the scene. It is pleasing to note how well researched the story is, serving as an itinerary that affords the narrative a real ‘feel’ for the time and place. The character descriptions however are far patchier - it appears that if a character has appeared in the series, they are written under the assumption that the reader has prior knowledge of what they look like.
For example, new characters such as Medea are described in great detail so that an image of her can be built up. Others, such as Batiatus, arrive to the plot with simply their name. Coming to the book as a somewhat erratic viewer of the television series (dropping in and out of various series depending on what a flick through cable finds) I found myself sneaking onto Google to find images that I could attach to these characters as I read the book. Maybe it is because I am one of those who struggle to visualise characters and needs a description delivered on a plate, maybe not.
The book is a sexy, sweaty, violent read and stomps along at a rip-roaring pace, much like the television series. This is neither an attempt to portray the Romans as they really were, or seek to delve deep into human emotions, but to be fair it does not pretend to be so. It is a thrilling, titillating guts and glory read, a toga ripper of a yarn.
There is violence aplenty, all described in gloriously gory detail that provides just a little more detail than is necessary. Thinking about it, the same can be said of the sex scenes! It is these two aspects of the story that are surprisingly far more affecting than when viewed in the TV series. The violence in particular, although seen in the readers imagination rather than on a screen, is far harder hitting than the books visual brethren.
The images that the screen provides is of gorgeous young actors who look far too perfect, painted and polished to be true, as though Hollywood has thrown a toga-party for its most beautiful young things. Ultimately, this enhances the artifice of the show and helps the viewer to remember that, despite the gripping narrative, it's only entertainment.
By comparison the characters and events in the book feel far more authentic and the violence lingers and cuts much deeper without the intervention of editing or the use of slo-mo and CGI splattered blood; an element that affords the on-screen violence an almost poetic choreography. The book, of course, has none of this and therefore relies on detailed descriptions of lingering death and horrendous suffering.
The reader may be thrown off kilter by the brutality of the narrative but the characters are most certainly not and, just as in the series, they charge on to the next escapade. There is no time wasted on reflection, analysis or pondering, but in return the book could never be accused of being dull. In his acknowledgements for his book, Clements notes how his book shares the aesthetic of the television series when he writes- ‘This book owes much to the cast and crew of Spartacus; Blood and Sand - knowingly obscene, carefully vulgar, garishly hued, conscientiously Latinate - who created such a memorable and distinctive look, feel and sound for the show’. Words, I feel, that summarise the book better than I ever could.
It is only fair to judge the book in terms of its relationship with the TV series, and therefore I can conclude that this is a fabulous, well written tale that grabs the reader by the throat and slams them around a tits, tans and testosterone filled version of ancient Rome that leaves them breathless. This may seem a flippant description but there is nothing wrong with a rip-roaring, entertaining read - and Spartacus: Swords and Ashes is most certainly just that.
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