Book Review: Heart of the Gladiator by Lydia Pax

Recently I added a blurb to my blog about solicitations, but I received a request from the author to read this book long before that went up, and I’d accepted because the premise interested me. Sadly, I didn’t get through my reading list as quickly as I thought I would, so it’s taken me awhile, but I’m happy to say I finally finished it.  Once I sat down to read it, I really enjoyed had a hard time to putting it down.

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I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

One-Sentence Synopsis
A slave who treats the wounds of gladiators falls in love with one, despite the fact that both of them have been targeted by someone with the power to destroy them both. For a full synopsis, see this book’s Goodreads page.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot
Aeliana was sold into slavery by her father who thought he was doing her a favor by selling her in a way that would allow her to learn a trade. Her skills as a medicae come in handy when she’s patching up the gladiators who fight for the house she’s a slave to, but she makes no secret that she thinks gladiators are, for lack of a better word, idiots. When she meets Caius, a gladiator who had retired but is now returning in order to make money to raise his daughter, she doesn’t know who he is and so tells him exactly what she thinks about his occupation. Oops.

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Back in the Arena
Caius is angry at first, but he gets over it relatively quickly. His return is somewhat of a challenge, as he’s out of shape and has a reputation. He’s dealing with the guilt of killing his last opponent, as well as the memory of that being the day his wife died in childbirth.

Mo’ Muscles, Mo’ Problems
Now, Caius has a whole new set of problems. Besides the fact that he’s attracted to Aeliana, he’s also dealing with Porcia, the woman in power of the house who wants him dead for reasons he can’t understand, a gladiator who’s a violent wild card, and the brother of the man he killed who has vowed to take his life in return.

Factoids and Tigers and Bears
It sounds like there was a lot going on in this book, and there was. But it was written so well that the plot flowed seamlessly. I was able to follow the story, even though there were a lot of historical and technical facts about gladiators, as well as quite a bit of language for the time and setting. There were also some great action scenes, including one involving a bear and a tiger that stands out as vivid, well-paced, nail-biting fun.

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Evil Women
Though I felt the novel was more plot based than character based, I still enjoyed the characters. I loved that Aeliana was a competent heroine, sadly hindered by society and how women of her station were treated at the time.  In general, though, the gladiators treated her well. In fact, her biggest source of conflict was some woman-on-woman hate from Porcia, who did her best to bully and blackmail her into doing what she wanted.

True Gladiator
Caius was determined and strong and driven to die in the arena if it meant keeping his daughter safe. Even when Aeliana throws a wrench into his intentions, neither one of them pretend that his survival is a sure thing. As the reader, we know he’s probably going to live, but I liked the realism that they didn’t and they expected that he’d be killed fighting.

Really a Romance?
Having said that about the happy ending, I did sometimes wonder if it was going to happen. Parts of the plot seem so bleak for these two. Also, while this is a romance novel, much of the time I felt like I was reading general fiction that just had romance thrown in. I’m not saying it wasn’t good, but the atmosphere and theme of the book was definitely powerful on the historical and gladiating side.

The Romance Factor
Saying the romance took second place to the setting isn’t giving it the credit its due. The romance was there and it was sweet. Caius and Aeliana seem to fall for each other quickly, but the time is one where death was common. I imagine that when two people had strong feelings for each other, they rolled with it. And that’s what the story seemed to convey. It felt real and it felt strong. 4/5

The Steam Factor
There wasn’t a lot of sex on this one, only 2 scenes that I can recall. While tame language was used, there’s a scene where Aeliana and Caius sneak away to make out by the river, and the element of getting caught made that one titillating. 3/5

Final Thoughts
Even though it took me so long to get to this one, I really liked it. It’s a quick read but well worth sitting down and letting yourself get caught up in the setting. This is the start of a series, and I’d definitely like to read more.

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