Title: The Valiant
Author: Lesley Livingston
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
Page Count: 372
Notable Notables: Female gladiators
Recommended Readers: Only those who want an extremely watered-down gladiator experience
I picked up The Valiant by Lesley Livingston, not due to the merits of the book itself, but because I saw the cover of its sequel, The Defiant, and thought it looked super friggin’ cool. “Let’s give this series a shot,” I said. “It’ll be fun,” I said.
Oh, past me. So young, so innocent.
The Valiant follows a warrior princess named Fallon, who is captured by Roman slavers and sold to a ludus owned by Julius Caesar, her nation’s conquerer. The plot has a little more involved, but this is the only part that was executed…semi-decently.
Okay, look, I admit it. I love gladiator stuff. The Starz show, Spartacus, has become a recent obsession for me. However, despite my love for the show, I also recognize that (probably a lot of it) is an extreme, full of Hollywood glitz, glam, and shock-value, that also revels on not having to answer at all to the FCC.
If Spartacus is on one end of the spectrum, then The Valiant can be placed firmly on the other end: the boring, unrealistic end.
It’s unfortunate because Livingston’s writing style isn’t terrible nor is her main character, Fallon, unlikeable. I liked the basis of these two aspects, but I loathed where the novel went and the choices Livingston made as a writer.
Breakdowns are cool. Let’s do them.
Livingston’s writing is so transparent that she tells you everything that’s going to happen. I think she thought she was doing foreshadowing, but her method is so blunt that it isn’t foreshadowing at all; it’s giving the novel away.
From the first chapter alone, she already tells you how the book’s going to end and how Fallon is going to make a name for herself as a gladiatrix: the seemingly impossible chariot maneuver called the Morrigan’s Flight. And in the first chapter, Fallon succeeds in doing it, with a minor accident occurring, but no real harm done.
Fallon also harps on about her older sister Sorcha and how she went to save their father, the king, from Roman capture and died in the attempt. Fallon brings this up so often and in such great detail that you can easily deduce that Sorcha is actually alive and well somewhere within the Roman Empire, and poor Fallon is dreadfully unaware.
This pattern happens on repeat throughout, but for some reason, Fallon is always a little slow on the uptake. After it becomes obvious why an event happened, Fallon doesn’t have the epiphany until a few pages later at a much slower pace than the reader. I truly don’t believe that Fallon was intentionally written as being dumber than readers, so I can only assume that Livingston thought her writing is much more complicated than it actually is or that younger teens aren’t sharp readers. Either way, it’s a bad move, one that drags the narrative down with it.
Once again in the first chapter, readers are hit upside the head with a brick, and that brick has a piece of paper taped on it that says, “Forced romance to hide lazy writing.”
The person helping Fallon achieve the Morrigan’s Flight is Mael, her childhood best friend. After the slight accident that could’ve killed Fallon, Mael panics, kisses her, declares his love for her, and states that he’s going to approach her father to marry her.
Fallon gets him to slow down on the marriage thing, but the single kiss was enough for her to realize that she loves him, too.
Y’all… This is so much to swallow for a first chapter. Too much. First the impossible chariot trick and now love declarations? I was only just starting to get to know Fallon as a character; I didn’t know Mael at all, and I hadn’t witnessed their supposed closeness or their history, only being exposed to it from exposition. And now I’m supposed to accept that they’re so in love?
Nah. I remember thinking, I hope something happens to end this soon. Something does, but after an indeterminable amount of time goes by (I don’t know the amount because Livingston doesn’t establish any kind of time, so my best guess is a few months), Fallon forgets what Mael looks like.
Yes, she forgets the face of the person she was so in love with, the person she had literally grown up with in just the span of a few months. Why?
Because she’s in love with Caius Varro now, a Roman soldier who she tried to kill and had a few conversations with before he offers to buy her slave contract so she can be free. Because he loves her so much.
I can’t believe I had to sit through not just one but two insta-love relationships in one very short novel. Ugh.
Gladiators? I Think Not
Even though the novel says repeatedly that gladiators and gladiatrices are still slaves, it doesn’t seem to believe it or make you want to believe it. Part of the problem is because The Valiant was written for a younger audience, but even YA is getting edgier and darker now in content, so I’m not giving it a pass this time.
Because honestly, I don’t think there was a single gladiator or gladiatrix who ever lived who was treated as well as Fallon is here. As over-the-top as Spartacus is, I think it depicts slave treatment much more accurately than The Valiant pretends to.
Even before Fallon swears the oath, she’s properly nourished; allowed to bathe, eat, and train whenever; and is taken care of at the ludus. None of the gladiatrices cells are locked at night, and Fallon easily roams through the ludus and beyond without any guards catching her. Her training isn’t remarkably harsh or commented upon, and she is not formally made to prove herself as a gladiatrix before being allowed to swear the oath, so I have no idea why she gets to. (And no, that little gang-up on her by proven gladiatrices doesn’t count. That was laughably bad.)
Fallon also does nothing to warrant her expensive cost as a fighter nor how much potential everyone claims she has. Elka saves her ass on the auction block, she is repeatedly trounced whenever we bother to see her train, Cai goes easy on her, and the one gladiator match we see her fight one-on-one, she wins by accident.
Yet after that, she’s suddenly a “better gladiatrix than her sister,” better than any gladiatrix there ever was. She won one match, and Caesar selects her to be Victory for his Triumphs spectacle. Fallon isn’t even considered a Champion of the arena, and everyone is literally falling over themselves to praise her.
The Lanista, of course, turns out to be her sister, Sorcha, acting under a different name, so Fallon doesn’t even have to debase herself to treat her new mistress with respect or fear. For some reason, Caesar awarded Sorcha a ludus after her glory days in the arena were over. She operates as a slave under his behest, with the intention to buy her freedom and the ludus from him and free the gladiatrices, who can either leave or stay to fight willingly. So even the Lanista is nice to them and views them as people rather than as tools to be used however she or the nobility seem fit.
So once again, Fallon gets special treatment, and everything is boring.
Sorcha and Cai
These characters could’ve been great ones if they had been used well.
Seriously, though, why? Why make Fallon’s sister be her Lanista? I’ve felt off ever since that twist happened, and I’ve decided that I hate it. It doesn’t make any sense why Caesar would’ve given a ludus to an ex-gladiatrix who is still a slave and who originally came from a foreign land after the Spartacus revolt happened.
It also doesn’t make any sense why Sorcha didn’t just free Fallon after buying her and sending her home (she bought her with her own money, not Caesar’s). So I don’t get it. I don’t get this fake drama about slighted sisterhood and debates about there being honor in fighting “the right way” (Fallon) versus doing whatever it takes to survive in the arena (Sorcha). Seems like even more reason why Sorcha would’ve just sent her home, but o k a y.
Outside of Fallon, Sorcha had no characterization, and she could’ve been amazing. How brutal would it have been for Fallon to join her sister in slavery on an equal level or, worse, to have them fighting for different ludi as rivals and not knowing it until they met on the arena sands?
Moreover, there’s Caius. Before he gets goo-goo eyes for Fallon (which isn’t a long stretch of time at all), there’s so much potential there. He’s a Decurion who spies for Caesar, Fallon’s already tried to kill him as an enemy soldier, he’s been formally trained compared to Fallon’s wildness; this could’ve been a perfect slowburn. I would’ve even been happy for some insta-lust on his part and him realizing he has dirty, tricky feelings for a slave that could slit his throat.
But instead I got to watch everything that made Cai intriguing get flung out the window with the words, “I’ve never met a girl like you before.” With him wanting to buy Fallon’s slave contract so he wouldn’t have to watch her die. With him saying he loves her after two kisses.
With Livingston trying to create fake tension by having Fallon say, “We can’t do this. Our stations are too different. You’re a soldier, and I’m a slave,” without also knowing, I guess, that Romans did not care about people having sex with slaves. They did it all the time because slaves weren’t considered people. Roman law didn’t even consider sex with slaves to be infidelity, so I don’t appreciate this fake fretting. Especially not when you end your book with Fallon pulling this marvelous victory out of her ass with her special chariot move we knew she was going to do and Cai running from the stands to sweep her off her feet and kiss her senseless in front of every important Roman, including Caesar, watching.
This is dumb, y’all.
I have no idea how to account for the book’s pacing itself. I have no idea how it made it to print like this. For a book that’s supposed to be about female gladiators, we don’t get very much of that. For instance, the first actual gladiatrix match doesn’t even happen until about 75% of the way through.
That’s deplorable pacing.
Far too much time was spent with Fallon on her journey to Rome in chains, which could’ve paid off if any part of that time had a great effect on Fallon’s psychological state at all. Instead, it’s pretty much forgotten about once she gets to the ludus. No horrors of slavery here! The book just wanted you to think things were a little bad at the time, but it’s mostly all right.
Reading The Valiant felt like I was reading the first half of a book yet was never given the other half. I got through the exposition and the rising action before realizing that the last chapter was supposed to be the climax, falling action, and denouement all in one.
But it wasn’t. It was far too weak and predictable to be considered such. You know what was interesting? Fallon stumbling upon those underworld followers towards the end. You know what the novel focused on instead? Caesar’s Triumphs, which I already knew how they were going to play out thanks to chapter one.
I kept thinking that I would still pick up the sequel despite how this one went, but I have nothing to look forward to. The synopsis for The Defiant looks even more boring and out of left field, probably because The Valiant didn’t give Livingston much to work with.
If you’re thinking about reading this one, I’d give it a hard pass. And the hope that Blood and Sand by C.V. Wyk is better.