'The Gladiator' is billed as “In the great tradition of Spartacus!”. It's debut, “Hill of the Dead” was released by Pinnacle in the US in December of 1975. The author's name of Andrew Quiller is a pseudonym utilized by writers Kenneth Bulmer, Laurence James and Angus Wells. It's tied to the American series called 'The Gladiator', but also to the European version deemed “The Eagles”. It's a five-book run that's supposedly penned completely by Bulmer (or at least the first three).
The book's beginning is actually the ending. The reader is placed in a Roman Colosseum circa 75 a.d. A notorious gladiator named Vulpus the Fox is doing battle with a unnamed prisoner to the delight and roar of the crowd. As Vulpus is about to strike the bloody death blow...he hesitates. The combatant advises Vulpus, “Aye. It is Samuel ben Ezra. No ghost. Come brother, strike. I have had enough of debts”. And with that intriguing statement, Vulpus, Samuel and the reader go back in time to learn the history of both fighters and what events led to this battle.
Vulpus is actually Marcus Julius Britannicus, a young Roman soldier in the Tenth Legion. He was awarded the service by his father, Flavius Silva. Marcus' father is now dead and Marcus is committed to the Roman Army and to rising in the ranks of leadership. The legion is to wipe out the remaining Jewish forces in Jerusalem. The last fortress standing is Masada, fifty miles southeast of Jerusalem overlooking the Dead Sea. It's 1000 feet up and defended by the Zealots. Marcus, anticipating a strike on the fortress in the coming days, visits a Jewish whorehouse prior to battle. While in the act, Jewish troops descend on the building in an attempt to destroy Marcus and the Roman soldiers. Samuel ben Ezra, showing mercy on his soon-to-be attacker, allows Marcus to escape through a window. The two become friends and Marcus swears a debt to Samuel for saving his life.
Later, Marcus is in charge of the first assault on Masada but is torn between annihilation of the Zealots (including Samuel) or an escape plan for Samuel and his sister to flee before the battle begins. The novel really comes alive in this finale, ripe with both action, intrigue and anticipation of the inevitable Marcus/Samuel showdown. The novel ends where it began and the reader is left with a cliffhanger. Hopefully, it continues this story-line in the second book “The Land of Mist”.
Overall, Marcus is a worthy protagonist and a character with many different dynamics. His youth, experience and skills are central to the book's strengths. While emotional, the author incorporates many battle sequences featuring a sole Marcus or as a legion featuring the character. There's a love interest, the blood debt and the history of both Marcus and Samuel for the reader to absorb (or in my case devour). At just 162-pages and large print, this is an easy one day read that will leave you scanning auction and used store sites for the second entry.