This collection of short stories encapsulates everything that makes Ben Kane one of the very best writers of historical fiction around at the moment. Though the stories are very much linked by the theme of Rome, there is considerable variety here and a welcome opportunity for fans of the author to read a little more about some of his most popular characters.
The story which gives its name to the book, Sands of the Arena had its origins during the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020 when Ben formed a group of historical fiction writers called Authors Without Borders. The aim was to provide free stories written for locked-down readers and release them as daily or weekly episodes.
It is good to see Sands of the Arena published in this collection because it is an excellent story which keeps the reader entertained from beginning to end. In part this is due to the appeal of the leading character, Midar – a rookie gladiator; but also because the narrative takes the reader in so many directions that we don’t know what will happen next.
The character of Midar feels authentic and believable because it is shaped by the writer’s extensive knowledge and understanding of Roman culture and mores. His grasp of the period drips subtly from every page but never feels laboured or forced.
Among the other stories we find a who’s who of Ben Kane characters including Romulus, Tullus and Hannibal. My particular favourites are two stories featuring Lucius Cominius Tullus: The Shrine and Eagles in the East. Tullus is an excellently drawn character and reading the two stories back to back gives an interesting insight into how Tullus develops between the two tales which are set roughly 12 years apart.
The Shrine shows Tullus in a peacetime context as it takes place in a lull between wars where the recently promoted officer tries to enjoy some well-deserved leisure time. But this is a Ben Kane story so the reader suspects that Tullus is not going to find his time very relaxing.
By contrast Eagles in the East is a rip-roaring war story replete with blood and gore as Tullus and his newly-trained century seek to crush a rebellion in Illyricum. The depth of this story comes from the writer’s willingness to explore the relationships between officers and rank and file. Writing about the fellowship of a group of strangers thrown together is an area where Ben Kane is particularly skilled, as is shown in his succinct description of the growing camaraderie among the gladiators in Sands of the Arena: “We cheered. Spoons rattled off bars. Feet were stamped.” The use of such short, pithy several word sentences is very effective.
In all the stories Ben’s considerable narrative powers shine through as does his exceptional skill with words. Whatever dangers his characters face and wherever they may roam, he makes us feel that we are there with them, cheering them all the way.