Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand

Gladiatrix Gladiatrix
by Rhonda Roberts
Harper Voyager

Supplied for review by Harper Collins New Zealand

Reviewed By: Alex Lindsay

There was once a film called Gladiatress which was billed with the tag-line "Does my gluteus maximus look big in this?" Great line; poor film. This book lacks a snappy tag-line, but it is pretty good.

The book is set in an alternative present, where time-travel was achieved fifty years ago, but is very little used, being the preserve of an underfunded and unglamorous US Federal Agency. The heroine, Kannon Dupree, was found abandoned in Australia as a baby, and early in the book discovers that one of the few "Time Marshals" may be her mother. She goes to San Francisco to try to meet her, but is forced through the portal and sent back to ancient Rome, where she has to try and save her presumed mother.

It has to be said fairly clearly that this is not a story about time travel. Much great SF has been written on that subject, even after the journal American Philosophical Quarterly spoiled it for everyone by detailing every possible problem in its paper The Paradoxes of Time Travel. In Gladiatrix, the possibility of paradoxes is dismissed as an impossibility, with a single sentence and there ends discussion.

What the book is, is a very good adventure story, with enough action, scheming and plot twists to keep the most jaded thriller-reader happy. The characters are wonderful: there is a full range of them in the present-timeline part of the novel, with some well described personal, political, religious and criminal motivations driving them in their orbits. The population of Ancient Rome is even better: these people are not modern man writ smaller. They are people with a completely different world view from the modern visitors who walk among them. They are people who know for a fact that thunder is caused by angry gods and whose every move is coloured by that knowledge. They are people for whom decadence was proof of civilisation. The way in which the author captures the alien nature of an ancient city at the peak of its dominance is wonderful. The phrase "the past is a foreign country" is overused, but this book is a travelogue.

Chasers are chased; fights are fought; million-to-one shots come off and all is satisfactorily resolved at the end, after just one more twist. The heroine even gets the guy at the end, and that is handled without either biological detail or squeamish prudery.

If there is a weakness in the book, it is in the rather jarring way that a couple of McGuffins are used. The explanation that paradoxes can't happen and the way in which the language barrier is surmounted are both necessary to move the plot forward, but there is a difference between quickly clearing up a point to move on, and quickly tip-toeing past it in case it wakes up and bites you. The Babelfish was a fairly elegant solution to the age-old problem of talking to aliens, but the method used here seemed a little clumsy. Now that the author has established her universe, perhaps she won't feel the need to re-describe these features if Kannon goes back to Rome.

Part of me hopes that there is such a sequel, as the richness of that time could sustain a shelf-full of adventures, but part of me would like to see how the Vikings can handle Kannon.

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