Friday, March 29, 2019

Forgotten Books: The Gladiator #1: Hill of the Dead - Andrew Quiller (Laurence James)

HILL OF THE DEAD is the first novel in a series I’ve recently completed collecting. The Gladiator is the overall title of these books, which were originally published in England as a series called The Eagles. The first four novels were reprinted in the United States by Pinnacle. The fifth and final book appeared only in England. The scan of this one is from the copy I read. The cover art is by Marcus Boas, an artist whose work I’m normally not fond of. This one is not too bad, very Steve Reeves-like, but not at all the way I pictured the character as I read the book.

As HILL OF THE DEAD begins, the title character is already an experienced, much-feared gladiator who has won many battles in the arena. Marcus Julius Brittanicus, known as Vulpus (the Fox) because he’s an intelligent fighter and often wins by out-thinking his opponents, finds himself facing a worthy opponent in a Jew named Samuel ben Ezra. The problem is, Marcus and Samuel are old friends who haven’t seen each other in years, and now one of them is going to have to kill the other.

At that point, the novel becomes a series of flashbacks filling in the background on Marcus’s life and his friendship with Samuel. Marcus used to be a centurion and actually chose to become a gladiator, but before that, Samuel saved his life during an encounter with some would-be thives. Later, Marcus is there when the Roman army lays siege to the Jewish stronghold of Masada, where Samuel is one of the defenders. You’d think the friendship between them might end there, but from the first chapter, we know that’s not the case. There’s more of the story to come.

With this flashback structure, the plot of HILL OF THE DEAD meanders around a little, at times seeming like nothing more than a framework on which to hang scenes of violence and sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, since author Laurence James, writing under the house-name Andrew Quiller, has a lot of sheer storytelling power in his prose and the book moves swiftly, even though it’s episodic.

Laurence James wrote a lot for the British paperback market, mostly Westerns but also some historicals like the Eagles/Gladiator series, for which he also wrote #4 in addition to this debut novel. (#2 and #5 are by Kenneth Bulmer, #3 by Angus Wells. I’ll be getting to them.) His work is so brutal at times that I have trouble reading it (he wrote one Western series where I’ve never been able to get past the first chapter in the first book), but it can also be very effective. I found that to be the case in HILL OF THE DEAD. He does a good job of using the historical setting, as well, and Marcus Julius Brittanicus is an interesting character. I’m looking forward to reading the other books in this series.


Unknown said...

I enjoyed this one a lot. I've got the four published over here

James Reasoner said...

That fifth book can be pretty pricey. I was lucky and came across an inexpensive copy for sale on-line and grabbed it while I had the chance.