The Left Hand of Calvus by Ann Gallagher: 1/10 Stars

 

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Former gladiator Saevius is certain fortune’s smiling on him when a Pompeiian politician buys him to be his bodyguard. But then his new master, Laurea Calvus, orders Saevius to discover the gladiator with whom his wife is having an affair. In order to do that, Saevius must return to the arena, training alongside the very men on whom he’s spying. Worse, he’s now under the command of Drusus, a notoriously cruel—and yet strangely intriguing—lanista.

But Saevius’s ruse is the least of his worries. There’s more to the affair than a wife humiliating her prominent husband, and now Saevius is part of a dangerous game between dangerous men. He isn’t the only gladiator out to expose the Lady Verina’s transgressions, and her husband wants more than just the guilty man’s name.

When Saevius learns the truth about the affair, he’s left with no choice but to betray one of his masters: one he’s come to fear, one he’s come to respect, and both of whom could have him killed without repercussion. For the first time in his life, the most dangerous place for this gladiator isn’t the arena.

 

 

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Overall Rating: 1/10 stars

Leigh’s Review: 1/5 Stars

If I had to pick one word to describe this book, it would be “meh.”

It’s written from the cis character’s POV, and it includes a few tropes that I’m sick of seeing in trans stories—shitty family, bullies, and the nudity/clothing change “surprise” forced-outing. If you go into this book not realizing there’s a trans character in it, the coming out scene would be a tasteless “plot twist.” There are vague hints dropped here and there that Drusus might be trans, but they aren’t blatant enough to forgive the obvious “shock factor” of the coming out. It’s one thing to shock the other characters, but to attempt to shock the reader is crap.

At least the cis MC handles it well, without falling into any of that gross “omg can I be near a vagina?!” crap you sometimes see, but still… frustrating.

Apart from that, this book was just kind of… a book. I have no feelings about it in any direction. It diverted my attention briefly during a layover at the airport, and that’s it. It feels like a book. The events didn’t seem to flow naturally. They had to keep being pushed along by narrative. The characters are two-dimensional and I felt nothing for them. The story didn’t pull me in, and I called every single “plot twist” from a mile away. The romance was shallow and unlikely in the circumstances. It just felt like someone watched Spartacus and decided to write a book about gladiators as quickly as possible to cash in on the hype.

Laura’s Review: 0/5 Stars

Here’s the thing: if I could give this book negative stars, I would. It’s just that terrible. I disliked it so much that I’ve been thinking all day about how to write this review so it’s not a mess of me saying “that’s not how it works” and “how dare you do that!” In the end, I’m just going to give you the highlights that made me think this book is terrible. Beware of spoilers if you’re going to keep reading.
Slave/Slave owner relationship? ✓ Check
Listen, writing a romance book where the main characters or the love interest is a slave requires *a lot* of skill. Writing a book where the relationship involves a slave and their master? That’s nearly impossible. At minimum, the huge power imbalance at play needs to be addressed, which it never is in this book (except for a half arsed conversation where the master literally tells the slave “I’m your master, but I won’t ask you to do this.”) If you can’t even cover that minimum, I just won’t be able to deal with that relationship.
I think I’ve only ever read one book where the love interest was a slave that I actually liked. And that was because the other part of the relationship was not her owner and the power imbalance was dealt with beautifully.
It was not the case in this book.
Magical passing? ✓ Check
So, Roman Empire, yeah? This is supposedly a historical romance. Can we all agree that medical transition didn’t exist then? Yes? Okay.
Well, I don’t know how he does it, but Drusus passes as a man *all the time.* The only clue we get that he’s trans is the mention of him wearing a breast plate no matter how hot the weather is. And I’m just…what? What kind of shitty research is this that makes you think a trans man can just pass like this?
But it gets worse. When at the end of the book Drusus faces his father he doesn’t recognise him. Seriously? I’m pretty sure I put down my kindle and shouted “what the fuck is this?” then. Suspending disbelief is one thing but this…this is a huge disrespect to actual trans men. This is an author not even doing a bare minimum of research. This feels like an author writing a trans character just so they can say they did.
Cis saviour complex? ✓ Check
To be fair, the main character had a saviour complex even before he knew his love interest was trans. And can we talk about that reveal? I really hate having a character’s gender identity being revealed for shock value. And this, with Drusus summoning the main character from a brothel where he’s hiding as a female prostitute? That was just that, and I hated it.
But of course Drusus, the man who’s built himself, who’s become the most feared Lanista in all of Pompeii, can’t solve any of his problems alone, he needs the big burly gladiator to help. The cis character is the one solving all their problems, even after we’ve been told time and time again how powerful Drusus is and how much people fear him. Apparently he’s only powerful amongst his gladiators, and not even there, since a few of them have tried to kill him.
Transphobic rape as a plot device? ✓ Check
Listen, this was just the nail in the coffin for the trash fire that was this book. It’s fucking disrespectful, it’s over used, and it’s a transphobic plot device. How? How can you claim to be an ally and write this? How can you say you’re an ally and write a trans man repeatedly being raped and told that if he says anything his attackers will for all intents and purposes out him to his father? What kind of an ally are you?
In the end, this book was a fucking mess of disrespect and outright transphobia, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Please, fellow cis writers, please, don’t write trans characters if you’re not going to respect them as much as you do your cis characters. Don’t write trans characters for cookies. Half arsed research and transphobia will be called out.
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