“I punched my fists skyward in victory before sweeping my arms out to either side, stretched wide as wings. I felt for that fleeting instant as if I really were the goddess Morrigan in flight, swooping low over a battlefield to collect the souls of the glorious dead.”
Fallon is a Celtic Princess with an ax to grind: Julius Caesar killed her warrior-sister in his battle to conquer Britain (or Prydain, as the Celts call it) and Fallon trains to one day get revenge on the Roman conqueror. But when her father betroths her to her boyfriend’s brother, instead of asking her to join his royal war band, she’s sure she’ll never get the chance after all.
While tracking down her betrothed to confront him, Fallon’s life takes another sharp left turn: slavers capture her and bring her to Rome, where her greatest enemy, Caesar, buys her for his gladiatrix training academy. While Fallon’s Cantii spirit still cries for freedom, she trusts the will of her goddess and trains hard to become the best gladiatrix in Rome. The Valiant is YA Alternate History authored by Lesley Livingston and published February 14th 2017 by Razorbill.
The Valiant opens with Fallon successfully completing the fabled chariot stunt known as the Morrigan’s Flight, wherein a warrior steps from the chariot’s carriage to the shaft between the running horses and hurls a spear at her target. This lushly detailed and action-filled opening sets the tone for the rest of the book. The first third sucks readers into Fallon’s journey from Roman Britain to Rome itself with the thrum of chariot wheels, the stench of corpse-fouled wells and the chill of the metal torcs that mark you as royalty—or slave.
Then we reach the promise of the premise: Caesar buys Fallon for his gladiatrix training school. The “school” trope is one of my favorites in YA, and this very trope is the “twist” that makes The Valiant an alternate history: though rare, individual female gladiators did exist; but Livingston imagines elite training schools to prepare the female warriors for the Colosseum battles. As in the first third of The Valiant, Livingston brings this premise alive with great details.
One of my favorite examples: when Fallon is training for the Colosseum, she analyzes the different styles and strategies of gladiatorial combat, such as what classes of gladiator the women belong to, depending on their weapons—and what Hunger-Games-like strategies they use to please the crowd of spectators:
Gratia fought in the style of the murmillo gladiators, with sword and heavy shield. It suited her physique—and her penchant for thoughtless brutality—and made her something of a force to be reckoned with in the arena. It also compensated for her utter lack of personality.
And that was something that the masters of the ludi, the gladiatorial games, coveted above all else.
The rest of the plot feels a little stringy and predictable to me, but Fallon’s journey to the school and her struggles there draw the real focus anyway.
And although the character psychology doesn’t always ring true, the politics of identity, race and culture give strong flavor to character interactions and agendas. For example, Fallon chafes against her bondage, disgusted by the idea of battling to satisfy this foreign Roman bloodlust; she can’t understand how the Romans can stomach forcing their slaves to fight like animals. But she also realizes that her tribe and family kept, worked and sold slaves just like the Romans:
We bought them and sold them the same way as we did out cattle. Slaves had meant swept floors and lit fires and clean water carried in heavy clay pots. I was ashamed to admit I had never given them much thought. They just…were. I had been so very blind. And stupid. And now I was learning what it was like to have someone else decide my fate.”
While I expected some action and hoped for some good historical detail, I didn’t at all expect this kind of historical depth. It was such a great surprise!
This is exactly what I’m looking for, when I pick up a YA with a historical bent. I want the entertainment and the detail. Balanced pacing, slam-bang action and an engaging level of historical awareness raises this YA Alternate History above the market average. It’s very well edited with invisible prose, active description and almost none of the “telling” that can drone on and on and kill the forward motion in historical fiction.
Recommended To :
Readers who wish Rosemary Sutcliff had written more YA. Or, you know, anyone who likes the idea of reading about female gladiators 😀