Since my first brush with historical fantasy I’ve discovered a genre quite suited to my tastes, not only for the kind of stories it can offer, but also because it leads me to explore in more depth any given historical period in which the novel is set. So it was a given that I would read this one, as soon as I saw the first reviews popping up on fellow bloggers’ sites.
Fallon, the main character, is the daughter of the king of the Cantii, a fierce Celtic tribe: in a culture where women fight alongside their men, she’s training to be a warrior in her father’s army (such as it is) and to follow in the footsteps of her older sister Sorcha, who died in the battle that freed their father from his Roman captors. On the eve of her acceptance in the king’s war band, she discovers to her dismay that her father has promised her to the leader of a neighboring tribe, the brother of the young man she just discovered herself in love with. A series of circumstances brings Fallon to be captured by slavers, brought to Rome and be sold to a female gladiators’ school, where she will be trained to fight in the arena for the delight of the crowds.
There was a lot in favor of this story, starting with the premise of female gladiators, whose existence is a relatively new discovery by the archeological community, and with the possibility of exploration of two cultures – the Celtic tribes in northern Europe and the conquest-prone Roman empire – pitted against each other. Moreover, the book promised a fearless heroine bent on regaining her freedom, even if that meant risking life and limb in the bloody sport of a gladiatorial arena. Sadly, it fell short on every count, at least from my point of view.
The cultural and historical background is barely sketched, and if on one hand I might understand the need to focus on plot developments, they might have worked just as well in any imagined fantasy culture as the ones we meet daily: fantasy readers don’t need a tie to any given existing culture to accept a plot such as this (a female warrior fighting for her freedom), so the scant details inserted for both civilizations seem to be there as mere lip service to the chosen background, rather than a desire to give a concrete feeling for it. Celtic culture was more than beer-laden feasts and blue tattoos, and Roman culture was more than gladiators, purple-striped togas and political intrigue.
Along similar lines, the circumstances leading to Fallon’s capture sound rushed and contrived, less an organic chain of events and more like plot devices needed to bring her where the author wanted her – in Rome as a slave gladiator (even though there is precious little time devoted to the details of training and actual combat) – and the speed at which everything happens kept me somewhat removed from the overall story, and I never felt any real sense of danger or any sense of reality whatsoever.
My greatest contention, however, is with Fallon herself: throughout the novel she failed to make a connection as a character, as a person, and the almost childish impetus she employs to move through her life seemed to point at a fatal shallowness and a lack of maturity, something I would never have expected in someone with her background and experiences. Fallon’s greatest failing as a character, in my opinion, is the huge dichotomy between her statements about being a trained warrior and the constant need to be saved from unpleasant situations.
A few examples? Back in her house, after she’s been informed she will be married off to her love interest’s brother, she peevishly throws all adornments into a brazier, including her knife, so when her prospective husband comes in, somewhat drunk and with amorous intentions, she is powerless to defend herself and the impasse is solved by the lucky arrival of her almost-boyfriend. On the slaver ship headed toward Rome, Fallon becomes the object of unwanted attentions from a crewman, and of course she’s saved, once more, by slave master Charon. And again, once in Rome and on her way to become a gladiatrix, she sneaks to a party in a patrician villa (an event that shouted “danger!” to the high heavens to everyone but her…) and finds herself in such a situation that requires her rescue by the handsome Roman decurion that has become her new love interest. If these are the marks of a fierce warrior fighting for her freedom… well, something is sorely missing.
As if that were not enough (and I will mercifully spend no words on the insta-love issues that seem a mandatory requirement in this kind of story), Fallon appears quite childish in her reactions, especially concerning a particular discovery I can’t describe (spoiler!) that should have made her ecstatic with joy and instead plunges her into new depths of petulance, that to me appeared quite uncalled for, given both past and present circumstances. In a possible attempt at balancing out this querulousness, we are told about her surges of sisterhood feelings for her fellow gladiatrices, for example, sentiments that seem to come out of nowhere since the only true friend Fallon makes along the way is fellow captive Elka, while in several cases she seems to ignore even the names of some of the other girls in the training school, identifying them with the animals depicted on their shields rather that with their names. A main character should be someone we root for, someone we establish a connection with, but sadly Fallon did not come even near that goal for me.
Even though I’m honest enough to understand that most of my objections stem from the fact I’m a crusty old curmudgeon 🙂 there is the fact of the huge divide between the premise of this story and the actual delivery of it, between the promise of a certain kind of character and the disappointment about what I encountered. The Valiant is not a bad book, not at all, but even as “popcorn entertainment” it fails to meet some of the criteria I look for in a story I want to care for, and I can sum it up as a missed opportunity.