Book Review: Blood and Sand by C. V. Wyk
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars
Genre: Historial Fiction, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of Blood and Sand
Publisher: Tor Teen (January 16, 2018)
Length: 320 pages
Well, that was, unfortunately, not as good as it could have been. Though, if you’re simply hankering for a standard Young Adult novel with a flavor of Ancient Rome, I’m sure this book will serve its purpose. I just wish it hadn’t been so…hokey.
What do I mean by that? You could feel the intrusive force of the author’s hand, nudging her characters through to the desired storyline every step of the way. None of it felt organic, from the events that transpired to the relationships between the characters. It sucked all the joy and charm out of what could have been an excellent novel.
The author begins with a note informing readers that many of the people and events that take place in the story are based on the historical record…except when it suits her needs. Don’t get me wrong, I read a lot of historical fiction and I know how it works; I don’t mind the occasional tweak here or there for the sake of making your story work better or more interesting. However, blatant manipulation of dates, say, for the express purpose of ending your novel on an “eruptive” note makes things seem far too contrived, if you know what I mean. This and other developments were “twists” I saw coming a mile away. Like I said, nothing unfolded organically; everything felt scripted.
Speaking of which, this segues perfectly into how I felt about the characters. The stars of Blood and Sand are Attia, a 17-year-old Thracian princess, and Xanthus, a Briton slave boy who grew to become the mightiest gladiator in Rome. Despite being a girl, Attia was chosen and trained by her father, the Maedi chieftain, to be his heir following the death of his wife and son. If the Romans had known, they would have killed her on the spot when they invaded her land and slaughtered her people, but they were expecting the Maedi heir to be a boy, which led to Attia to be captured and enslaved. In Rome, she was bought by Timeus, the dominus of a gladiatorial school, who wished to gift a beautiful Thracian girl to his best gladiator, Xanthus. Expecting the Champion of Rome to be a cruel violent brute, Attia prepares to fight tooth and nail to escape, only to find that Xanthus is nothing more than a misunderstood and tortured soul, soft-spoken, thoughtful, and gentle as a lamb (sigh…because of course he is). All her reservations about him disappear miraculously overnight. The two of them spend literally one night talking, and suddenly they are madly in love.
There was nothing to convince me these two had formed any kind of complex or emotional connection beyond sharing a few details in a very strained, orchestrated conversation about their past. Nothing to convince me that Attia would throw away her all-consuming desire for freedom and revenge for the sake of a stranger she’s only known for a short time. This has become a common refrain from me regarding the state of Young Adult romances as of late, but there was simply no spark of chemistry.
For a novel being pitched as a story about a “female Spartacus”, I was also profoundly disappointed by the lack of action we saw from Attia. We mostly got to see her kick ass in just one pivotal scene in the middle of the book, following a sequence of events that felt awkward and scripted in the manner they came about. Characters appeared to go out of their way to maneuver themselves into that very situation, even if their reasoning made little sense. Most of the supporting cast are also lightly sketched and felt like props for the author to use as she saw fit—namely, to make Attia and Xanthus look good. Xanthus’s gladiator brothers are hardly around except when they’re needed to talk up Attia’s beauty or battle prowess, and characters like Lucrezia and Rory felt written in for the sole purpose of being Attia’s charity cases.
Finally, this did not feel like a complete book. Early in the story, Xanthus is given the news that he will have an opportunity to face his sworn enemy in the ring, an event that never materialized, so presumably there will be at least one sequel where this will be covered. The novel instead ends with no resolution to any conflict, though to the author’s credit, she did seek to close things out with a spectacular bang—an effort in which she was successful, even if the ending left me with no sense of closure or satisfaction. There are loose ends aplenty, but somehow, I have a feeling I already know how a lot of them will resolve, given how predictable I found this novel.
Blood and Sand was a book I had high hopes for, and in truth, the first few chapters did make me think that perhaps I held a winner in my hands. With that said, perhaps the source of my frustration lies in the genuine potential for greatness that I glimpsed in this debut, if only it hadn’t been constrained by so many common first-timer mistakes as time wore on. My tepid response notwithstanding, I don’t think this was a bad book, just that it was too contrived for my liking, which killed a lot of my enthusiasm for the story and characters. Still, there’s room to grow with this series, so I’m not writing it off yet, but I’ll probably adopt a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the sequel.