I first read The Valiant by Lesley Livingston in January 2018. This review was originally posted on my Goodreads account at that time. I made edits and expansions before posting here.
The Valiant is the first book in a series by Lesley Livingston. Right now there are two books out (though I do not know if there will be a third. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s a YA series; it’s bound to be a trilogy). This novel tells the story of Fallon, a teenage daughter of a Celtic king. She is kidnapped from her native land by Romans and is taken to Rome, where she is sold to a ludus, a training school for female gladiators (known as gladiatrices). She must learn to fight not just for her life, but for the pleasure of the crowds, in order to survive here.
From what I know of the history of the Roman Empire, this is pretty accurate. The details of Fallon’s life in Britain seem to be fairly detailed and accurate. Mention of Celtic deities such as the Morrigan, traditional fighting techniques of Fallon’s people, and the behaviors of the Romans both in the lands they invade and their home turf, make this a pretty decent historical fiction.
The writing is not bad overall, though I feel a couple of characters could have been fleshed out more (Elka and Cai especially), but perhaps they will be in the second book. Fallon is not the greatest protagonist in the world, but she is certainly not a Mary Sue. She makes mistakes and miscalculations, but also is brave and sensitive. Most of the other characters are given decent depth and complexity, though none are extremely compelling (except perhaps Sorcha).
I could not decide, while reading this, if I was annoyed by the romance(s) or not. When we first meet Fallon, she is single. But within the first few pages, she and her longtime friend reveal their feelings to one another. After that, things snowball at such a breakneck pace that I could not help but be a bit exasperated. I mean, these two had pledged intense love for each other, agreed to marry, and dealt with family disapproval in the span of, I think, a few hours. I know they are teens, but who in reality is that impulsive?! It felt a little ridiculous to me, though fortunately I did not have to deal with it for long, as soon after Fallon was kidnapped and the main plot was allowed to begin. Of course, that led to another eventual romance, which was maybe even stranger. A girl who is, technically, a slave, falling in love with a Roman is a little problematic to me. This Roman may not directly be her captor, but through this book he is technically complicit in the system of equal opportunity enslavement practiced by his people. He may be mostly a decent guy, but he is still a Roman, and she is still a gladatrix. (Also, their romance was just a bit boring to me, rife with the usual teen melodrama. Just with more ancient weapons than usual.)
Furthermore, some of the plot points/twists were fairly predictable. I cannot confess I was surprised by the ludus leader’s identity: it was pretty obvious from the beginning. And the relationship between this character and Fallon was interesting, but not as emotionally impactful as I believe Livingston wanted it to be. I don’t know, maybe I am just being overly critical about this.
However, there were several aspects about this book that make this an enjoyable read. The fight scenes are quite intense and exciting. There are clever, well-written lives. I was invested enough in Fallon that by the end of the book, I wanted to know what happens next in her story. This adventure will definitely remind you of The Hunger Games a LOT (which I suppose stands to reason, as the inspiration for that series was in fact Roman gladiator battles. This might also be why I found the plot a little predictable; the two stories have a very similar structure). All in all, I think young people who like historical fiction, romance, Ancient Rome, or a strong female protagonist will probably enjoy this.
Overall rating: 7/10