Book Review: The Last Gladiator (by Daniel Ottalini)
Updated: May 30, 2020
For this week’s blog post it’s book review corner once again! This week I’m reviewing The Last Gladiator by Daniel Ottalini, which came to my attention after Daniel very kindly offered to act as an advance reader of my recently-released cyberpunk thriller. I was unaware of the series to which this book acts as a standalone prequel, and completely unprepared for an absolutely unique setting: an alternate history, steampunk imagining of a Roman empire that never fell, complete with robotic mecha-gladiators!
(Warning: review contains minor spoilers)
An evocative mash-up
Of course, however original (and cool) your premise, there’s no substitute for good writing, and Daniel certainly delivers in this regard. The book rattles (and clanks, and whirrs) along faster than a speeding chariot, and the plot kept me gripped enough to finish the novel in a single sitting. It tells the story of Lucia Rhodanus Fortem, who has left behind the ill-gotten comforts of her family home in Neapolis to pursue fame and fortune as a gladiator in the thriving metropolis of Rome. She must learn not only to master the spear, shield and chariot, but also her own troubled emotions, as to survive she will need to rely upon the skills and support of her new familia at the Ludus Magnus, a famed gladiatorial training school.
But the warriors of this ancient and esteemed academy face a challenge even greater than evading a grisly death: their profession is staring into the oblivion of irrelevance. With slavery abolished and a lack of willing participants in the deadly contests, the emperor is planning to shut down the traditional battles and replace the combatants with steam-powered stand-ins. Interestingly, the climactic confrontation with the gleaming mechanical monster occurs at around the halfway point of the novel, leaving me wondering at that point where the plot would lead; I won’t spoil it here, except to say that Lucia must learn to adapt quickly to her newfound fame.
In this regard, as well as in the deftly-described combat sequences (the author is a teacher and amateur historian, and this definitely shows in the well-researched and meticulous descriptions of weaponry, armour and gladiatorial tactics), the book reminded me a lot of the Hunger Games novels. The main character is strong and determined, taking even instances of sexism and racism in her stride (she is of African descent), although the machinations of the political elite prove more challenging for her to navigate. A heart-breaking scene where she is pressurised by a sleazy member of the ruling class is thoughtfully handled, allowing the book to explore important issues such as the abuse of power without alienating its YA audience.
The story also touches on issues such as the impact of technology on society, as well as the inevitability of change. The gradual obsolescence of the once-great gladiators lends the story a powerful aura of melancholy, and the sense that even hard-fought individual victories by humans against the machines would not stem the oily tide.
In terms of the tech, I enjoyed the steampunk setting immensely, particularly the evocative mash-up of ancient Roman colosseums and architecture with more modern industrial features. I chuckled at the exploding, gunpowder-tipped spears that had replaced more conventional gladiatorial weaponry, and at a scene where the emperor taps on his microphone to silence the baying crowd. The ‘big mech’ aspect of the story isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, but the story wisely doesn’t dwell too much on this, recognising that the inherent awesomeness of massive robots alone is not enough to hold an audience’s interest.
At times I’d have liked more description of the novel’s world, of its machines and customs and structures, and also of the alternate timeline that led to its existence. Indeed, the book’s ending felt as though it came a little too soon – I wasn’t quite ready to leave this familiar yet wildly different vision of Rome. Of course, I now know there’s a whole series of books to tackle if I fancy donning my galea and greaves once again!
In summary, I would recommend The Last Gladiator to anyone who likes fast-paced YA fiction similar to The Hunger Games, or ancient Rome, or steampunk – there’s a combination I never thought I’d describe! Congratulations to Daniel on crafting a great book, and many thanks for giving me the opportunity to review it.
Well, that's all from me. I’ll see you next week for some more blog-based lockdown distractions – in the meantime, stay safe and ‘stay alert’, whatever the hell that means!