Set mainly in Rome during the reign of Nero, Celts and the Gladiator takes us back to the pestilent, desperate world of Rawena where we find her plying her trade as a Gladiator. How long can she remain undetected by those who seek to destroy her or will her old nemesis, Pandemia, get there first?
Celts and the Gladiator is a brilliantly crafted novel that blends history, fantasy, myth and magic into an accomplished and gripping read. It is the second instalment but ably stands alone. The reader is brought deftly up to speed with past events without having to labour through passages of tiresome rehash.
From the opening chapter, the book is pure action. The level of plot detailing is staggering; aside from the main story involving Rawena, P.C. Darkcliff throws in natural disasters, Nero’s lunacy, love stories, shipwrecks and a hefty supernatural smattering among other layers. It could be exhausting as the pace is relentless but the sheer beauty of the writing and the complete credibility of the story ensure that it is not.
There are lots of little avenues of additional interest and well-realised character vignettes with wonderfully robust language and bawdy physicality (Rufio, for example) that keep everything fresh and add a touch of humour. The narratives are also very tightly constructed; there is nothing superfluous, every tangent, however small, has a reason to flow back to, or reference the main plot. The high drama and galloping tempo could almost excuse the occasional loss of continuity but every strand dovetails perfectly and nothing becomes overly complex.
There is some lovely descriptive imagery and the depth of research is not to be underestimated; P.C. Darkcliff provides an excellent reconstruction of a historical period. Rome 54AD is vividly brought to life through the rich use of period detail and knowledge. Nero, in particular, is horrendously well-realised; he could easily become pantomimic but doesn’t and, instead, is depicted with a terrifyingly authentic level of uncontrollable, mental disintegration which almost makes you physically flinch.
Although Pandemia, the Rat-Goddess, is repellent, you cannot help but feel an uncomfortable level of truth in some of her reasoning. When she speaks of the entitled, wanton materialism that exists in Rome (Chapter 11), you feel a sharp, contemporary relevance and the reader can also find a timely nod to Covid with the highly contagious plague, if so desired.
Aside from the well-realised supporting cast, the main characters are excellently depicted. It is obvious that P.C. Darkcliff has taken the utmost care in ensuring each are individual and fully dimensional. Rawena pulls you between utter loathing and heart-breaking compassion, she is also more self-aware than in the first book, which is helped by the introduction of Crimus who is nicely convincing and highly emotive. There is also the welcome return of a central character from Book I who is successfully used to maintain the tension and momentum.
Personally, I like that P.C. Darkcliff veers away from the beaten track and takes risks with his plotting and writing. It’s a small detail but the growing distance between Garux and Arvasia was a thoughtful idea, totally unexpected and it worked very well. Which is another point to make; you really have no idea what is going to happen to any of the characters and yet you know it will be both surprising and believable.
Celts and the Gladiator is an excellently written, immersive and entertaining read. Highly recommended.