Wolf's Empire Gladiator
By Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan
First, O Muse, sing of Galactic Rome, master of ten thousand worlds...
Prologue of the book
I was told about this book’s release by this review series’ own editor Dr. Ben Allen. Now I'll admit my main interest was in who was writing it, Ms. Christian, who I knew from her role as Commander Susan Ivanova on what remains one of my favorite science fiction shows Babylon 5 (Go Watch It!). That wasn't her only role, she's done a legion's worth of work in movies and television (both live action and voice acting). She's also done songwriting and written a number of books. Two of them are about her life (Babylon Confidential and My Life Among Freaks and Geeks) and a good number of them are about fictional events. Two of them are Babylon 5 books, which unfortunately don't appear to be available anymore. Her co-author Mr. Buchanan has a great amount of experience as well, having written and edited comics, short stories, and a number of movie scripts. He also co authored Babylon Confidential with Ms. Christian. So this is not the first time they've worked together but this is the first fictional work they've created. A society so interesting I've already started theorizing how it came to pass. Let's take a look at it shall we?
Empire of the Wolf is set in Rome, capital of the Roman Empire (In Spaaaaacccceeee!!!) an empire of over 10,000 worlds divided into eight provinces. Each province is governed as a direct fief by a single Great House (well seven great houses and the central province arranged around earth is ruled by the imperial house). Each house has it's own army, fleet, and government led by a provincial proconsul. The Houses are all represented in the Senate of Rome, which serves some vague function that the book doesn't go into (to be fair giving me a tour of Space Rome's government and society isn't the point of the book... But I want it to!). This is a government that the Roman Empire of our world never used. That said... the way it is presented in the book makes its feel like a government that the Romans could have arrived at with enough time and experimentation. After all the historical Rome was a state that changed it’s methods and form of government a great many times. Nor is it the only state to do so, after all modern day France is on it's 5th Republic since 1792 (and I have money on them creating the 6th before 2100, don't let me down French Rioters!). More importantly the characters in the story feel very Roman--very pre-christian Roman. Let me be clear here, there's no truck with Judeo-Christian values or with Jewish preachers of any stripe. This Rome worships at least some of the traditional Pagan Roman gods and is very proud of it. It preaches the traditional Roman values of loyalty, duty, pride and dignity even unto death. It is also vain, greedy, and cruel much like the historical Rome. Ms. Christian and Mr. Buchanan don't shy away from either the virtues or the vices of the Roman way of life but rather try to update that way of life, making the changes necessary for such things to make sense. One example of this is using real-time internet voting to decide if a gladiator lives or dies in the arena. Like the Historical Rome, our Space Rome is expansionist and rather casually refers to all peoples outside of it's empire as barbarians. This is mostly aimed at aliens, as every alien character we see in this story is a slave, which our Roman characters consider good and proper. Now to be fair there are human slaves as well, but slavery does seem to be considered the natural role of aliens in the empire, which is another change as the historical Rome was able to accept outsiders as Romans, provided they civilized themselves and adapted proper Roman values and behavior of course. Let me talk about our characters and the plot itself.
Two great houses--the Viridian and the Sertorians--have nearly torn apart the Empire with their civil war. The Sertorians started it when they attacked the Viridians, trying to seize a minor ice planet on the edge of the Viridian provincial border. Millions have died; hundreds of planets were bombarded; thousands of cities have been fought over; and every house in the empire has taken sides. Things have gotten so bad that the Emperor with the full weight of Imperial forces has stepped in and announced no more warfare. Instead the civil war will be settled in a series of gladiatorial games during the festival of Jupiter. This is because the fight is more then a scuffle over territory, it's also become an ideological war. House Viridian is the traditionalist house in the Empire, preaching a number of virtues such as duty, honor, loyalty to family and the gods and so on. They have a number of vices as well, they're very conservative, stubborn, and bluntly they're a bunch of sexists. Meanwhile the Sertorians are radicals, while they aren't sexist, they preach an ideology of genetic purity and will to power; where the weak suffer what they must and the strong do what they will. Declaring themselves the new gods and the old traditional gods of Rome to be dead. That's right we're dealing with Internet Atheist Space Roman Nazis here. Honestly I tend to roll my eyes at villains like these but Ms. Christian and Mr. Buchanan avoid much of the worse of it by keeping the story intensely personal and focused (I'll get to this) despite it's rather galactic stakes. Instead of looking at their policies on a large scale or drowning in the millions of victims that such policies would produce, they give a look at the first hand behavior of the elite of such a society and the kind of people who would climb to the top in such an environment. They are brutal and savage monsters locked in eternal competition with each other for every scrap of power, prestige, and position they can get and through our main character we get our faces rubbed in it.
Accala Viridius Camilla, is a Roman noblewoman of House Viridian and the main character of our book. Accala wants to help her house defeat the Sertorians on the battlefield but women aren't allowed in the military. Her motives aren't entirely impersonal, when the war began her mother and little brother were on that minor little ice planet that started this whole thing. In fact they were at ground zero when the Sertorians started bombing the planet and she wants revenge for their deaths. When the Senate finally puts it foot down and refuses to let her in, she becomes a gladiator for the chance to face the Sertorians and kill them. A fact that has scandalized most of Roman society and set her father against her. When her father's manages to lock her out of the gladiatorial games, she finds herself resorting to drastic measures. This brings in Gaius Sertorius Crassus, who wants her to join House Sertorian's team, in return she'll get her brother back (who is alive) and Crassus will help her kill Licinus Sertorius Malleolus, a man who happens to be both Crassus' main rival for power within the house and the guy who personally led the bombing that killed Accala's mother. Accala's still on the fence about the whole join team bad guy plan when her Uncle, the proconsul of House Viridian pulls her aside and suggests this is a great way to get the secret behind House Sertorian's strength and to set up a double cross that will allow House Viridian to win the games, win the war, and in the process put an end to Space Nazis in the Space Roman Empire.
To do this Accala has to go into the very belly of the beast and spend a very long time alone with people who hate everything she stands for and want to turn her into a copy of themselves in all their narcissistic, sociopathic glory. I know those words get tossed around a lot but they are literally told to worship themselves as gods (and their proconsul as a god above them of course) and to not give a solitary damn about anyone else around them. Reading this section was incredibly difficult because I was reading a headstrong girl in over her head surrounded by terrible people who wanted to use her and turn her into a copy of themselves. It was very well written, which frankly made it harder to read. To be honest this section convinced me that Ms. Christian was fully engaged in the writing of this novel, no offense or slight meant but there are a lot of co-writing projects that basically turn into one person writes an outline and the other person writes the entire book from that. While I haven't read Babylon Confidential, I am very aware of Ms. Christian struggles with addiction and the fact that she made lot of self destructive choices. The experience of those choices and struggles display themselves to full effect in first half of the book. Especially for me, because while I've not gone down that rabbit hole (this is not a statement of moral superiority on my part, I've screwed up plenty in my past but by a combination of temperament and luck managed to avoid the worse of it.). I've had to watch plenty of other people do it and it's never fun or easy to see. Even in fiction. In this case you're almost thankful when the blood sports start, because watching people murder each other is going to be easier to read. The violence is very well written, communicating the swift jarring nature of violence and how easy it is for things to change and to lose track of things you really shouldn't. Mr. Buchanan has a background in the martial arts and I suspect this was mostly his work. It's not the best I've seen but it's way better than average and continues to suggest to me that writers who want to write about violence might be well served to join a gym so they can get a small taste of it. It turns out that the gladiator games are only the beginning of it as things spin out of control, Accala finds herself having to make decisions and choices that are going to affect the entire Empire. Like it or not Accala finds herself with no choice but to become a hero, in front of an audience of hundreds of billions.
Wolf’s Empire gives us a story with a tight focus, that of a 19 year old girl willing to go to any lengths to avenge her mother and save her brother with very large stakes. While about revenge it does manage to avoid preaching the old chestnut of the emptiness of revenge, instead we see fully and in detail what the quest can cost a person on every level. Accala may get her revenge but doing so is going to leave her battered and possibly broken, if not worse. Which frankly makes for a better story than some old mentor droning on about it. Accala is a very human character which helps greatly because she carries the book on her willful and determined shoulders. In short, the story works and works well but I kind of feel it needed more time to fully unwind and I was left feeling that I was purposefully given a very narrow view of the culture of Space Rome. This is something that leaves a guy like me with an Anthropology degree very unsatisfied. Still I do hope to see more novels about this setting in general and I feel this was a good start, despite having an ending that leaves things open for a 2nd book, it tells a complete story which is always a good thing. I also came into this book with low expectations, I mean seriously, a book about Rome in Spaaaacceeee? But Ms. Christian and Mr. Buchanan managed to surprise me. For this I'm giving Wolf's Empire Gladiator a B.
Next week, I go back in military science fiction! See you soon!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.