Spartacus, by Robert Southworth, is built on a what-if premise - what if Spartacus was not killed at the end of the slaves' rebellion in 73-71 BC? What if instead he was captured, and turned by one of the Roman factions into an agent to carry out hazardous missions - a sort of Jason Bourne of the Roman world? As a premise it makes sense, as he was highly skilled as a fighter both by natural talent and on-the-job training. Too good to waste by execution, really, so long as there was a reliable way to keep him under control.
That accomplished, Spartacus comes under the direct leadership of a man he learns to respect, and gathers around him a diverse band of other fighters. The scene is set for a challenging tour of operations involving hazardous journeys by land and sea, trickery and betrayal, and a final showdown as the climax of the book.
A multi-layered vision is painted of Roman society. The life a man can build for himself is defined partly by innate or learned skills, but overwhelmingly by the power of the patronage he can find. We are introduced to hierarchies of power in the Roman world, most of which are ruthless in the pursuit of their own interests and brutal towards their enemies. The picture is effective, and it didn't take long for me to decide that I would not have enjoyed living in that culture - and most likely would not have had a very long life within it.
Difficult for men, then, and many times more so for women. For them, powerful protection in the form of husband or master was a necessity, and there was basically no legal recourse against brutality. In Robert's book, women provide a background element of stability and passionate release, a desirable goal to yearn for when the fighting is done. For the good guys, this means a faithful wife: for the bad guys, a collection of dispensable slave girls. But there are no central female characters in this book, and it is difficult to see how there could be in this vision of Rome.
The book is very fast paced, as we rush with Spartacus and his gang from threat to threat, and combat to combat. Occasionally we get glimpses of other aspects of Roman life, but all too quickly the men are pulled away to the next fight, learning how to work together as a team as they go.
On a technical level the book could have benefited from another editing session or two. More commas would have helped read through the longer sentences, and changes of viewpoint from one character to another could have been signalled more smoothly in the text. There was nothing of this nature that could not be solved with a minor correction of the text.
Spartacus succeeds as a visceral, fight-focused journey into small team combat in ancient Rome. It also supplies the lurking sense that there are much bigger games afoot, and that at some stage the central characters will be caught up in them. There are follow-on books, which one suspects will increase the stakes, but Spartacus is complete as a novel in itself.