I devoured this book in one thrilling, edge of my seat evening. I could not tear myself away. I will be posting my review today as well but first, I am thrilled to share a Q&A with Ally Sherrick!
Tell us a little about your new book, Vita and the Gladiator.
It’s the story of Vita, a high-born girl living in Roman Londinium at the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Though she longs to write poetry and plays, for a girl like her, the only future is marriage. Until – spoiler alert! – on the day of her fourteenth birthday, her father is murdered and her mother and brother disappear. Vita escapes with her life only to end up a slave in a gladiator school, sharing a cell with a fierce warrior-huntress, Brea and her wolf Col.
Vita and Brea are from very different worlds. But when they discover they share a common enemy, they resolve to bring him to justice, even if that means standing against him in the arena …
Each of your novels are set in a different time in history, how do you pick the era and what tends to spark a story for you?
The time period isn’t the thing I think about first to be honest. It’s more a case of getting the inspiration from a real place or object then asking the all-important story question ‘What if’ and seeing where that might lead.
For my first book, Black Powder, set at the time of the infamous Gunpowder Plot, the idea for the story came from a visit to the ruins of the once grand Tudor mansion of Cowdray House where a certain Guy Fawkes had worked as a gentleman servant when young . For my wartime adventure, The Buried Crown, it was also a place – the site of the famous archaeological discovery of the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo Ship Burial. While for my third book, The Queen’s Fool, it was a pair of paintings hanging on the wood-panelled walls of the Tudor gallery at Hampton Court Palace.
In the case of Vita and the Gladiator, a stone relief of a pair of female gladiators (or gladiatrices as they known today) – Amazon and Achillia – was the spark. We all know about male gladiators, but to think that there might actually have been women who fought in the Roman arena too. That was something I had to find out more about!
Vita and the Gladiator is set in Roman Britain featuring the barbaric world of the gladiator, what were the most fascinating discoveries you made while researching the book?
Ooh, lots of things! As I’ve watched the brilliant Ridley Scott film, Gladiator many times, I thought I was reasonably familiar with the world of the gladiator. But as I deep-dived into some serious research I found out so much more.
For example, becoming a gladiator wasn’t a matter of choice for most. Men were usually sold as prisoners-of-war to a gladiator school (or ludus) for training, like my character the fearsome celebrity fighter, Cronos the Skull-crusher. Or they were criminals sentenced to die by the sword or compete in the arena. Others could be slaves considered troublemakers by their masters and sold on to the training school.
As a result, gladiators were outcasts – or infame – considered the lowest of the low by the rest of Roman society. Though some high-born ‘glory-seeking’ men did volunteer. And then of course there were the women who chose to fight, though they were never admitted to gladiator schools for obvious reasons. Instead they were most likely trained privately, perhaps by a retired gladiator.
Women fighters were definitely a rarity though. The thought of a woman fighting in the arena was a shocking reversal of the ideal of the Roman matron – decent, beautiful and devoted to her husband and children. Yet it was also something that drew the crowds. And I discovered there were female beast-hunters too. This led to the creation of the character of native Briton, Brea, my heroine, Vita’s cell-mate in the story.
There are many references to mythology in the story? Can you give us some examples?
I used to love reading versions of the Greek and Roman myths as a child. One of my favourite books then was Enid Blyton’s retelling of them which came with black and white pictures that I confess I used to love colouring in!
One of my favourite myths that found its way into the book is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. I had fun creating my own version of this both for a scene early on in the story where Vita sneaks off to watch a play. Also, for a later, more high-stakes scene in the arena when Vita and Brea are forced to face their common enemy.
Myth fans will also spot references to the stories of Romulus and Remus, Perseus and the Gorgon, Medusa and to various gods and goddesses, including Vita’s favourite, Minerva, goddess of wisdom, poetry and the arts and justice.
What was the inspiration for your character, Vita?
I knew that I wanted Vita to be from quite a different world to that of the gladiator so that when she is plunged into it after the attack on her family, it is all the more shocking to her. So I decided to make her the high-born daughter of retired Roman army commander and senior magistrate, Marcus Tullius Verus.
I knew from the start that she harboured a burning desire to be a writer, in spite of the fact that a girl of her class was destined to marry and focus all her efforts on giving her husband a family and a well-run home.
Eagle-eyed readers will spot that I’ve included a quote at the beginning of the book attributed to the poet, Sappho:
‘Someone I tell you, in another time, will remember us’.
This idea that writing – and storytelling in the wider sense – can keep a person’s exploits and memories alive long after they are gone is an important subtext of Vita and Brea’s stories. Also how stories can be put to other uses too – both good and bad …
And finally, what do you think the main messages are in the book?
For me, it’s themes of truth and justice, the possibility of friendship between people from completely different backgrounds and the power of stories which are key.
But for all good works of fiction, part of the great pleasure of reading them is to take your own meaning from the words and above all enjoy the adventure!