I volunteered to read and review "Heart of the Arena" by Mishka Jenkins. While doing so, I also happened to pick up "Pompeii" from the Library (the DVD, not book; I already read the book). Just my luck to end up with two gladiator stories both located in Pompeii at the same time.
As a classical scholar and lover of all things Roman, I'm going to walk you through my reviews of both.
As far as the movie, by itself, all I can say is - Gladiator, the prequel. This was just another in a long line of gladiator movies, from Spartacus with Kirk Douglas to today. Not much has changed.
We still have the barbarian upstart with a heart of gold. We have the big, muscular black man who ends up befriending the plucky hero and the innocent, intelligent girl (most often rich). We have the evil, lecherous bad guy (though at least Kieffer Sutherland isn't hitting on his sister) and his second-in-command. As expected, the girl falls in love with the slave, sacrifices on his behalf, he gets punished anyways and gains an enemy. Oh, and don't forget the gladiator revolt - Americans just can't abide slavery, even ancient slavery. Eventually, the hero and villan end up in a one-on-one battle. Hero wins, of course. Then dies!
[END OF ALERT!]
On the surface, it is an enjoyable romp, like all the others... but, what really impressed and horrified me was the producer's recreation of Pompeii and the eruption of Vesuvius.
Pompeii, the resort town/city, was beautifully restored. All the details were accurate and obviously very well researched. Even the people, the dress, the colors, the transportation, the festival atmosphere, the food, house party, all of it was gorgeous and I hung on the edge of my seat in thrall. In fact, I even rewound a few scenes just to gawk a little more.
Specifically, I loved the gladiatorial drama put on in Pompeii - the reenactment of the Celtic victory. Between the narrators in masks speaking in unison as a "chorus" of sorts and the offering to the gods, to the actual Pompeiian amphitheater, I was in LOVE! That scene was done to perfection and I almost wished Vesuvius would not have erupted and ruined it all.
As for the eruption, I was disappointed, nay angered. It was wrong from start to finish. Everything about the time it erupted to the precursors, to the way it erupted and how long it lasted, to the tsunami, to the lava... WRONG! There was NO LAVA in the 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius. That is why there is so much of Pompeii still left to discover in Italy.
Finally, a last note on the history. This could have been far better done if the gladiator, Milo, had been a slave from the Jewish revolts. Oh, yeah, that would have worked a lot better! Not to mention that at the time of the eruption, Titus was actually a well-loved Emperor. Yes, early on he had some haters (those terrified he was going to end up like Nero), but by this point far more of the populace love him. The senators and those in power in Rome, less so. The movie got that backwards.
Now, onto the book.
Wonderfully written. Interesting and unique story. The premise, despite is unbelievability, is made to be believable. The romance aspect is handled well and develops, as well as struggles, on in a likely manner. Because I deal a lot with erotica, I will mention here that this book does not contain any sexual content beyond heavy kissing and a "fade out" sexual interlude. Strong character development. Executed dialogue with a great deal of skill and talent. Very good understanding on the era, culture, and location.
Since I have a quite skill in reading this story, I want to take the time to express my gratitude for the following: Ms. Jenkins did her research into the life, training, and fighting of gladiators. I was especially delighted that she made comment on the different types of gladiators and their unique armor, styles, and techniques. I also appreciated her limited and correct use of the Latin she chose.
I do have some very small complaints - 1) there are no basements in Pompeii, so the beginning scene in which she climbs the stairs to the atrium makes absolutely no sense; 2) the author needs to do some more research into what methods of decoration and common topics are mostly often found in which rooms; 3) the names... but, that is a serious problem to most of these era books.
However, that said, I would strongly suggest anyone with an interest in the era to check this book out. It is a good read after that rather disheartening ending to Pompeii. Watch the movie then read the book.
Heart of the Arena is available from Amazon for $4.99.