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Wolf's Empire: Gladiator
by Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan
Tor, $26.99, 495pp
Published: June 2016

In the TV show Babylon Five, Claudia Christian brought depth, darkness, humor, and courage to the role of Ivanova, but more than that, she had presence. Ivanova, as played by Christian, had the authority to stand up to scene-chewing characters like Bester and Molari. Well, now Claudia Christian has authority of a different sort, for she has co-authored something magnificent.  Wolf's Empire: Gladiator shows the influence of Virgil, Homer, I, Claudius, and Dune, yet is wholly original epic SF that transports readers to a future that is both terrible and splendid.

Imagine a reality where Rome never fell but went on to build an empire that spans the galaxy; that is the premise of this new series. But Rome is still Rome: the civilization of decadence, “bread and circuses” and conquest as well as of personal honor and politics as profession.  Political rivalries drive the Great Families to acts of greatness in the service of the Empire, and to acts of treachery in service of themselves. Wars against other species are one way to employ aggressiveness, and these wars contribute to the wealth of the Empire. But wars happen, for choice, far away and behind veils of military secrecy, and the populace wants drama in the time-honored traditions of amphitheatres and reality tv.  Hence the Ludi Romana Games, in which scions of the Families compete for glory, political leverage, and occasionally settle scores.

When House Sertorian sets out to systematically eradicate, absorb and/or discredit House Viridian, Accala Viridian Camilla’s only hope for justice is to qualify for the games by fighting her way onto her House’s team. Her father, desperate to save what is left of his family, forbids her from competing and resorts to extraordinary measures to block her from the deadly competitions. Thwarted, Accala compromises her principles again and again for the sake of her driving objective: revenge. It is an intriguing, fascinating portrayal of self-betrayal and self-creation. Poised on the sword-edge of death, Accala lives more fully than any other character in fiction of whom I can think. 

Ultimately, Accala realizes a much more terrible game is being played, that decadence and deceit are undermining all that is admirable in the Galactic Roman Empire, a game against the gods themselves. The most dangerous man in the Empire has figured out a way to weaken the gods and take their power for himself and his favorites. He can command obedience and loyalty to a degree that history’s most successful dictators and tyrants could only envy.

Minerva has ever been Accala’s patron, but repeatedly, ring-lead by her rage and fears, Accala misses the promptings that Minerva sends her.  As her senses and even her mind are caught in the nets of her enemies, it is only her wolf’s heart, and her wolf’s nose for truth, that hold out.  Along with her few friends and some dicey allies, Accala wages a secret war for Justice for all against those who would destroy worlds in order to rule over the ruins.

Besides excellent plotting, character development, and world building, Gladiator also has, as one would hope and expect, thrilling descriptions of combat, both small scale and writ large. The Author Bio notes explain that Buchanan teaches tai chi, and much of the realism of the personal combat no doubt comes from his experience.  If you like realistic, mind-twisting (and sometimes heart-wrenching) fighting, you will LOVE this book. Especially inventive, and REALLY COOL -- sorry, I needed a chibi moment there -- is Accala’s weapon of choice, Orbis, an enhanced throwing discus which clearly demonstrates Clarke’s axiom that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  ~~ Chris R. Paige

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