Liberty by Kimberly Iverson
(HQN, $13.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-77134-7
Rhyddes ferch Rudd (“daughter of Rudd”) is a farm girl, used to a life of unending toil and humiliation at the hands of her inexplicably cruel father. After a particularly nasty whipping one day, Pictish warriors attack the farm. Rhyddes kills one of them, who is, astonishingly, a woman. Soon after, Rudd sells Rhyddes to Roman slave traders in order to pay a tax debt. His betrayal, and her cruel treatment at the hands of the soldiers accompanying them to Londinium where she will be sold, nearly cause Rhyddes to break.

Once n Londinium, Rhyddes is auctioned at the slave market. The bidding is spirited, but soon narrows to two men: Jamil, an Egyptian-born owner of a stable of gladiators, and Marcus Calpurnius Aquila, son of the Roman governor of Brittania. Jamil is the winner, and Rhyddes soon learns her fate: she will be trained as a gladiatrix, a female warrior who will amuse the Romans with her fighting skills.

Marcus, himself a noted fighter, prefers the gladiator arena to the political machinations of the Roman empire. As such, his relations with his father are strained, to say the least. Marcus is betrothed to a Roman noblewoman, chosen by his father for political advantage. But he can’t forget the copper-haired woman who stared at him with pride even while he fondled her lush curves on the auction block. When he encounters Rhyddes again after a match in which he was forced to kill his opponent, Marcus is surprised by her hostility – and intrigued. She is so different from the spoiled, cunning noblewomen he’s used to.

Marcus and Rhyddes meet again, many times, and as her fame grows with her success in the arena, she understands more of what Marcus must face. Both are trapped in their own social strata, and both desire the freedom to control their own lives. But he is to marry another woman, and her brutal treatment by the soldiers - who were careful to leave her a virgin but little more than that – makes her unwilling to accept Marcus as a lover. Gradually, they form a close emotional bond. How can a nobleman and a woman regarded as a societal outcast ever form a love match?

To make matters worse, they become pawns in a plot to overthrow the Emperor, a plot that Marcus uncovers. While this leads to an eventual plausible resolution, it also gives a lot of page space to villainous characters at the expense of the romance. Readers don’t expect nonstop love scenes in a book, but here the attraction between Rhyddes and Marcus is somewhat forced. We’re told Marcus loves Rhyddes, but it seems to be on the basis of her standing up to him and also having a great face and figure. They share a minimum of page space for such an integral part of the plot.

Rhyddes, who takes the name “Libertas”, or “freedom”, is an interesting character. The idea of a female gladiator will likely be new to many readers, but the author appears to have done her homework and an endnote details some of the research behind this notion. The Roman world comes alive and is vividly portrayed. For all that the romance isn’t as strong as it could be, readers will want these two lovers to be together. Both deserve a happy-ever-after.

Kimberly Iverson is the new pseudonym of Kim Headlee, whose previous book, Dawnflight dealt with the Arthurian legend. This foray into ancient Rome is an engrossing look at a fascinating time period, and the fact that she set so much of it in Brittania rather than Rome makes it all the more fresh. If you are looking for something new in historical romance, Liberty is a good place to start.

--Cathy Sova

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