And I thought book one (The Collar and the Cavvarach) was good! Book two (The Gladiator and the Guard) blew my socks off. Ripped my heart out. Gave me the wildest ride I’ve been on in a long time. And I loved it.
Bensin, a teenage slave and martial artist, is just one victory away from freedom. But after he is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he is condemned to the violent life and early death of a gladiator. While his loved ones seek desperately for a way to rescue him, Bensin struggles to stay alive and forge an identity in an environment designed to strip it from him. When he infuriates the authorities with his choices, he knows he is running out of time. Can he stand against the cruelty of the arena system and seize his freedom before that system crushes him?
I loved seeing more of Ellie in this book. From early on she stood up as her own character this time, even before the scenes from her POV. She takes an active role in the story multiple times, and despite the incredible emotional trauma she goes through, she shows tremendous yet realistic character growth from beginning to end. (Talk about trauma. I think one of the things that hit me hardest in this book was seeing the intense but spot-on psychological effects of slavery on everyone, not just the slaves and their owners. Broke my heart.)
To be honest, though, if I listed all the things that twisted my heart and stabbed my soul like a Nelirian dagger, you’d be reading another five pages full of spoilers. Steene’s struggles to take care of both Ellie and Bensin as a father, Bensin’s struggles to survive—physically and emotionally—as a gladiator, Ellie’s struggles to be strong and brave as a sister and a daughter, not to mention all the other characters and their conflicts, plot twists, and heartwarming moments—I was invested 120% in every page. By the time I finished the book (THAT LAST SENTENCE GUYS), I felt like I’d been in the arena myself, with my emotions as the beaten gladiator being dragged off the sand.
(Actual footage of me reading The Gladiator and the Guard)
Mr. Murton turned to Bensin, who was icing his injuries on the floor. Smiling, he crouched down and held the card out to him instead. “Bensin. Congratulations on your upcoming change in status. Considering the talent you’ve shown so far, I have no doubt that you’re going to win next weekend and earn your freedom. Considering you’re at liberty to make your own choices, keep Red Arena in mind. We mostly buy slaves, but we do occasionally sign contracts with free athletes. It would be a lifetime commitment, but we pay in advance, and I think you’ll find you’d be getting quite a deal.”-The Gladiator and the Guard
About the arena. We saw Red Arena in book one, but not in this way: a magnetic mash-up of Ancient Rome and modern America with action, setups, and an audience that could have come out of a history book side-by-side with today’s drones, TV monitors, and electronic gates. I found myself both appalled and fascinated by the arena system, the gladiator life, and the broader politics. Everything is so detailed, well-rounded, and realistic, I honestly expected to step out my door and see someone with a slave collar walk by, or turn on the TV and find an arena game showing. That’s how real these books are.
NOTE: I would rate this book PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence. While the descriptions are never graphic, and there are plenty of pages—and chapters—without violence, there’s no way around the “gladiator” part of the book: fighting, injuries, blood, death, and brutality, and not just in the arena. (Let’s just say everything Steene comes to feel, I felt too, though never to the point of wanting to put the book down.) Readers of The Hunger Games or A Torch Against the Night will feel right at home in the grittier, slighter darker tone of this book.
Bensin looked out toward the stands. Most of the seats were empty now, the audience filling the aisles as they crowded toward the exits. Even from here, he could hear the muted hum of conversation. Everyone was probably discussing how exciting the games had been. Did they have any idea what had just happened behind the scenes?–The Gladiator and the Guard
The grit and action are well balanced, however, by the moral themes and internal conflicts throughout the book. Each of the main characters goes through a powerful inner journey, with highs and lows, good decisions and bad decisions leading to positive choices and positive changes by the end. (Those bad decisions in the middle were the source of a lot of my groaning.) I really appreciate that, when all is said and done, these characters remain good role models for readers of any age.
Even beyond the main characters, this book contains an enriching depth and diversity of themes. Friendship, enmity, revenge, forgiveness, greed, sacrifice, pride, humility—just like some of my favorite WWII stories, Gladiator shows the best of humanity and the worst of humanity, from the small characters like Ellie to the massive systems like the Red Arena. Whether intentional or not, the author does a great job using the backdrop of the brutal arena games to highlight the little moments of kindness, forgiveness, or mercy shown by the characters, particularly Bensin.
Frankly, the author does everything great in this book. Continuing the story of The Collar and the Cavvarch, The Gladiator and the Guard offers a thrilling read full of the same masterful storytelling of high stakes, unending tension, clean humor, unexpected twists, and scene endings that pack a wicked punch. (And I thought the reading flowed much better without chapter titles.) I highly recommend this book to mature YA readers–but only if you have easy access to book three afterward, because you’ll want it ASAP. I can’t wait to finish the story!