Recent Reading: The Gladiator and the Guard by Annie Douglass Lima

So, this is the second book of the series – my review of the first, The Collar and the Cavvarach, is here. I liked that one quite a bit. I liked this one even better.

Okay, in this book, Bensin gets into serious trouble. As he’s still a slave, really serious trouble. He gets convicted of a crime and sentenced to death by gladiatorial combat. But there’s no strict rule about how long his sentence needs to take, so Red Arena sweeps him up and trains him for life as a gladiator, as is the custom for certain kinds of slaves. Remember, Bensin is already good at a sport called cavvara shil, which translates to a combat style suited to the arena.

All that is setup. You can at once see the basic outline of the story: Bensin’s in trouble, people who care about him want to get him out of the arena before he’s killed, the broad strokes are clear at once. The question is how we’re going to get there.

The first part of the story was a bit hard for me to take. Bensin is a young idiot for quite some time. Then he realizes (finally!) that the Red Arena system is set up to manipulate gladiators into being violent and angry and aggressive and committed to destroying their opponents. Yes, he’s slow, but remember he’s a kid and also basically uneducated. He does realize this. Better still, shortly thereafter, he has a real epiphany: I don’t have to go along with this. I can choose who I want to be.

Laid out baldly like that, you might wonder, could the author sell this personal transformation? When the kid is basically an ordinary kid and not necessarily that bright?

Well: Yes, she could. Lima made this absolutely believable.

From that time on, I was much more on board. I didn’t like seeing Bensin get manipulated and ground down into a much meaner person. I very much did like to see him seize control of his destiny and decide to be who he wanted to be. Plus, though Bensin doesn’t get this, the reader can very likely see it: That kid has every potential to become a fulcrum around which his whole society could shift. He had some very powerful, very public moments that set him up to become a heck of a symbol. After those moments, whether he escaped to freedom or died a martyr didn’t matter. Either ending would let him become that kind of symbol. In fact, the Red Arena staff were idiots not to grasp that whatever they did, they had better not let Bensin become a martyr. They missed that completely. For them, it’s almost certainly better that Bensin escaped. (And a lot better for Bensin, obviously.)

Now, whether Lima’s going to actually give her whole society a hard shove away from slavery during the course of this series, I don’t know. It’s only a trilogy, so it may not offer sufficient scope for that. But it almost doesn’t matter whether anything like that happens on stage. It’s obvious that the potential is there, not just because Bensin’s public moments are bound to linger in public consciousness, but because there are other cracks showing in the system as well. So that’s excellent. I do prefer it when, by the end of the story, a bad system looks like it’s about ripe for a fall.

Meanwhile, while Bensin’s going through all this, what’s going on with Steene, Bensin’s owner? Well, Steene feels absolutely wretched that he didn’t free Bensin long before trouble overtook him. He’s willing to do practically anything to get Bensin out of the Arena. The broad strokes of the plot are clear, as I said.

Steene’s not that smart either, but he manages. (Barely. Pro tip: if you are going to do something like this to get money, don’t ask for the minimum amount you think you need. DOUBLE that amount, to take care of unforeseen contingencies that are certain to arise. Back off the amount you demand only if absolutely necessary. Honestly, Steene!)

However, the important thing is that Steene truly commits to getting Bensin out and that commitment leads to him taking charge of his own choices in a way that he really never has before. His character arc isn’t as sharply defined as Bensin’s, but it’s there, and it echoes Bensin’s arc in important ways. This gives the whole story a coherence and depth that pushes it a step beyond an adventure story. It’s really a very emotionally appealing story, and I think this is a large part of why.

I do want to mention something about the escape itself, but without spoiling it. Okay, I’ll say this: the plan is kind of slapdash – they get hurried into taking action before they’re quite ready – and wow, that is quite a slow-motion escape. The whole thing’s a bit like a snowball rolling downhill: it keeps accreting more complications. There’s a lot of humor in these scenes, though the situation is pretty grim. I loved this whole part and found the book hard to put down from the time the escape began until the end. I don’t think it constitutes too much of a spoiler to just add that broadly speaking, the escape is a success.

Other observations:

In my comments about the first book, I said that there ought to be an Underground Railroad sort of thing going on in this society. Well, there is. So I was pleased about that.

Also, I still like Officer Shigo. He doesn’t get much of a role in this story, but he’s there and yep, still thumbs up.

I’m reading the third book now.

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