Title: Blood of a Gladiator (Leonidas the Gladiator Mysteries Book One)

Publisher: JA/AG Publishing

Author: Ashley Gardner

Pages: 255 pp

Price: $9.99 (paperback) / $3.99 (ebook)

Leonidas of Sparta (not his given name, but one forced upon him) has survived the gladiatorial ring for years. Suddenly granted his freedom, he has no idea what to do with himself — and even less idea of how to earn money for food and shelter. All he knows for certain is that he is done with killing. He is sick of it, and will never take another life. When the mysterious benefactor who bought his freedom presents Leonidas with a well-educated slave named Cassia, Leonidas is even more confused. But then the matron of the local brothel is murdered, and Leonidas fears that he might be a suspect. Vowing that he would rather die than return to the gladiatorial ring, Leonidas — and the clever Cassia — set out to bring the murderer to justice, even if their investigation takes them all the way to the top of the Palatine Hill and the marble halls of Nero’s palace ….

I was first introduced to Leonidas and Cassia in the short novella, Blood Debts, which Gardner included in the free ebook, Past Crimes.* I thoroughly enjoyed it, and looked forward to eventually being able to read a full novel featuring these characters. Thankfully, Blood of a Gladiator does not disappoint — and, since it is the origin story and takes place first chronologically, you don’t have to worry about tracking down a copy of Blood Debts to know what’s going on.

Leonidas and Cassia make a great pair, even though they seem completely different at first. Falsely accused of murder in his youth, Leonidas has spent years training, fighting, and surviving in the arena. He is illiterate, barely able to recognize his own name, but he is quick on his feet, highly adaptable, and very good at reading people. Cassia, in contrast, was born into slavery; but she was part of a wealthy household and was trained by her father in literature and mathematics. She is fluent in multiple languages, is widely read, and knows how to navigate the corridors of power, but she has little experience in the “real world.” Together, their different strengths, skills, and forms of intelligence make them a formidable duo.

Gardner does an excellent job of bringing ancient Rome to life: the noise, the smells, the food, the buildings and people, the paranoia of living under a princeps like Nero. And, unlike too many other authors, she takes the spirituality of the people seriously. One of the first things Cassia does is build a small shrine to the ancestors in the apartment she shares with Leonidas. It features icons in honor of her father and Leonidas’ best friend, Xerxes, a fellow gladiator and the only family he can remember.

The mystery at the heart of Blood of a Gladiator is just as engaging; even more importantly, the reasons why Leonidas and Cassia become involved in the investigation make sense. There is a police force (the cohortes urbanae), but they’re more for riot control, while the vigiles focus on watching for fires; active investigation of a crime by analysis of evidence was essentially unknown. It was more likely that a convenient scapegoat would be picked, tortured, forced to confess, and executed or sold into slavery. As such, Leonidas is afraid of being blamed for the murder and sent back into the arena; and Cassia, as his slave, would just be executed. They both have very personal reasons for wanting to find the murderer, above and beyond any philosophical desire to see justice done.

Blood of a Gladiator is a terrific start to a new historical mystery series. Highly recommended to fans of the Flavia Albia series by Lindsey Davis, the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor, and the Medicus series by Ruth Downie.

*Gardner also writes two other historical mystery series, both of which appear in Past Crimes: the Captain Lacey books, set in Regency England; and the Below Stairs Mysteries, featuring a female chef in Victorian London.