I just surfaced. For hours today I’ve been immersed in Ancient Rome, a gift for which I have Nancy Kimball to thank. And what better way to thank a writer than by writing a short review of their book and passing the word on to others? Word of mouth has always been and likely will always be the best advertising.
I must confess I’m a bit of a history nerd/snob. It’s true. I love history, and historical fiction is my genre of choice for both reading and writing. Roman history is my particular Achilles’ heel. Of course, in my years of writing I’ve also done a fair amount of research, so inaccuracies tend to jar me out of the story. When, for instance, a writer (or TV show, or movie) depicts gladiator combat as indiscriminate slaughter where every fight is to the death I tend to roll my eyes and groan just a bit. (True gladiators, those who had actually trained for years to entertain the masses, were so valuable not even the most profligate sponsor could afford to butcher them en masse.) Kimball has done her research, and it shows. The one time I stopped dead and had to go fact-check was when a character gets killed by a crossbow early in the novel. But I had groaned too soon! As it turns out, even ancient Greece had a rudimentary version of the crossbow, as did Rome. Who knew? At the same time, Kimball generally keeps her background research, well, in the background. Imagine that! She weaves it into the story, but resists the temptation to diverge into the realm of textbooks like some novels do.
Of course, historical accuracy isn’t what drives a successful novel. The characters do. Kimball delivers a lively, diverse cast of multi-layered characters. Jonathan is both hard as stone and soft-hearted. His acts of charity and self-sacrifice are endearing. He is honest, pure, sincere, and brave. Yet, he is not a paragon of virtue. He falls and fails as we all do, but he always gets up. His desperate wait for Nessa shows love and depth of character, and you can’t help but root for their near-hopeless love to find a way. Nessa, likewise, is a wonderfully-drawn character that leaps off the page and into your heart almost immediately. Her steadfast faith, indomitable spirit, and ability to laugh and sing despite everything is compelling. Other characters — Quintus the doctor, Torren the gladiator master, Caelina the prostitute, Clovis the trainer — are all deep enough that you care about them, like them, hate them, respect them, or empathize with them.
For much of the novel Jonathan and Nessa are not the masters of their own destiny, which creates much of the tension. Jonathan especially is acted upon by others: his step-brother, his master’s wife, his gladiator masters, etc. The small ways he manages to shape his own future within this over-bearing power structure make you cheer for him and Nessa all the more when they finally break free.
The plot is as multilayered as the characters. More than once a plot twist caught me by surprise, which is delightful. A few plot points felt underdeveloped, such as when Jonathan is drawn into an assassination attempt on the Emperor. His assignment is apparently to guard the Empress, though no explanation is given of why she would be in danger or why her survival is important. But overall the book has flow and pace and draws to a satisfying conclusion. I also understand that this is the first book in a series, so a few loose ends are expected as tie-ins to the coming books (which will be out soon, I hope!)
In terms of age-appropriateness, I would suggest a minimum age of 12 or 13 for readers. This is a novel about gladiator life and battles, and the level of violence is higher than, say, an Amish romance. That should come as no shock, and personally I find the amount of action description bang-on. It never comes across as gratuitous, and sometimes Kimball let’s us look away, but you also get the definite sensation of being on the blood-soaked sands fighting desperately for your life. I love that! It might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me!
There is also a fair amount of sensuality alluded to, though again, not in an overblown way. Illicit sexuality is never condoned, and there are no detailed, racy descriptions. But again, very young readers might not be ready for the realities of Ancient Rome.
There were a couple nit-picks that jarred me from the story for a moment, such as when Nessa steps out of a tent into a corridor lined with torches, or when it should read heavy wooden sword but says shield instead. But these were very minor issues that only distracted momentarily from the smooth flow of the novel.
This is a Christian novel, so readers shouldn’t be surprised to find a fair amount of theology woven in. A couple times the witness Jonathan and Nessa give feels a bit drawn-out and “preachy” and one “miracle” where Jonathan prays for a gladiator he knocked out and claims a healing when the man comes to felt a bit contrived. But there are some genuinely powerful passages as Jonathan and Nessa share their faith with others, and I can only hope that people reading this book will either find faith in Christ or be strengthened in that they already hold.
The conclusion of the novel brings across a valuable lesson. Struggles will come into everyone’s life, Christian or not, but only we can decide what we make of them. Kimball weaves this theme skillfully throughout and uses an excellent illustration at the end, but I won’t ruin it for you…you’ll just have to read the book!
You can purchase Chasing the Lion at Amazon.com by clicking here.
Or connect with Nancy on her website by clicking here.
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