Book Review: Spartacus – Morituri
by Mark Morris
Titan Books, 2012
At the beginning of veteran genre writer Mark Morris’ latest book, an original spin-off novel set in the same fictional world as the hit TV show “Spartacus,” the louche and greedy Batiatus, owner of the Capuan ludus where Spartacus and his fellow gladiators train, is inspecting some slaves for sale. It’s hot, and he’s irritated, and Morris gives us a Syrian slave trader who’s both furtive and somewhat stereotypically foreign. Against Batiatus’ complaints about the smell of his slaves, he says, “I provide viewing as favor to valued customer. Such visits require preparations made in haste. Had I taken time to make scent sweeter, wind might have carried fragrance to others seeking purchase.”
OK, the reader thinks (almost without thinking) – so thesignal that this is a conniving Syrian foreigner is that he speaks in a rough kind of pidgin-diction. Fair enough. Hackneyed, but fair enough.
“Where does this one spawn from?” he asks the Syrian about a pretty young woman. The man responds, “From exotic soil, an island the Greeks know as Thule. Far beyond bounds of known lands.”
To which Batiatus, a Roman provincial and proper Capuan, replies, “Your mind concocts elaborate providence to burnish tainted goods. And telling of it tumbles like shit from mouth, adding to the stench.”
At which point, not even one full page into the novel, every reader will be stopping and re-reading and then wondering what the hell is going on. It’s not that Morris has used the wrong word – ‘providence’ when he wanted ‘provenance’ – it’s that suddenly Batiatus has joined the Syrian in speaking pidgin-diction. He says ‘your mind’ in his first line, but for some mysterious reason he avoids saying ‘your mouth’ in his second line. He can say ‘the stench’ but not ‘the telling.’ It’s decidedly odd.
Still, Morris is a trained professional content-provider, and he has a first-rate story (apparently concocted in collaboration with fellow fantasy author Paul Kearney) to tell. Batiatus is a big man in Capua, husband of the luscious, vicious Lucretia and owner of a prosperous gladiator school that features that rising star of the arena, Spartacus. This contented world is badly upset by the arrival of a rich foreigner named Hieronymus (and his nefarious “assistant” Mantilus), who’s friends with the ultra-rich Roman Marcus Crassus and who’s intent on establishing his own gladiator racket in Capua and muscling Batiatus out of business.
Two welcome things about this plot become obvious right away: first, Hieronymus is clearly willing to resort to any and all underhanded means to ruin Batiatus, and second, this is going to be Morituri‘s main plot – the rival machinations of two amoral businessmen, not one mindless arena fight-scene after another. This is very promising.
Then the characters start talking again, and it all goes down the nearest drain-pipe.
Batiatus is outbid for the slave girl and throws a tantrum when he gets home, hurling an ink-pot at his hapless servant Ashur. The noise summons Lucretia, and, incredibly, the pidgin-rhetoric starts back up again:
Lucretia stared hard at Batiatus for a moment, and then glanced at Ashur and the ink on the floor.
“Leave us,” she snarled. “Send someone to clean fucking mess.”
“Domina,” Ashur mumbled and scurried away.
Lucretia crossed to Batiatus and dabbled her fingers in his hair.
“Unburden mind with telling of its troubles,” she said gently.
She’s worried about him, you see. She admits it:
“What presses heavy on mind, Quintus?” she asked, her voice a concerned purr.
Batiatus scowled. “Observant wife, ever able to unscroll my thoughts.”
“Your countenance betrays. And goblet in hand is further telling sign. You rarely douse reflections in so much wine before sun descends.”
Readers who aren’t simply snickering by this point will be tense with frustration, ready to echo the angry shouts of Lionel Twain in Neil Simon’s hilarious 1976 movie Murder by Death when confronted by the pidgin-English of Charlie Chan knockoff Sidney Wang: “Say your goddam pronouns! That drives me crazy!”
I pride myself on being able to figure out what’s going on in an author’s mind when he does something so downright weird has having his characters talk like road company rejects from “The Last of the Mohicans,” but Morituri completely stumped me. Was Morris thinking to reproduce in English the comparative frill-free nature of everyday Latin? But no, because the Syrians, Greeks, Africans, provincials, and Romans all sound that way – and besides, the effects aren’t consistent. Characters who are slinging around articles and prepositions like Miss Jean Brodie in one scene are right back in the next scene to spouting fortune cookie nonsense like “Cruel words from husband’s lips” (“Apologies, Lucretia. Temper escapes. Much coin rides on this contest”).
The story unfolds with expert pacing. Morris does a wonderful job of making Batiatus sympathetic without at all making him nice, and there are very effective scenes of growing mental confusion among the gladiators in Batiatus’ outfit (one such scene, when Spartacus is certain he sees his dead wife, “as solid and beautiful as she had been in life,” is particularly chilling). There are well-done reflections on the whole world of the games, as when wounded fighter Crixus dreams of getting back in the ring:
In his view there was nothing more glorious than stepping out into the arena with your own name, bellowed over and over by a delirious crowd, echoing from the walls around you. A gladiator’s life may often be a short one, but how many men in their lifetimes truly got to know what it felt like to be hailed a hero?
It’s true that Morris commits a graver cinematic heresy than perhaps he knows when at one point he has Marcus Crassus not only meet Spartacus but inspect him with up-close scrutiny (what do you do with “I am Spartacus” after that?), but our author’s star – Batiatus – is a refreshingly complex portrait who carries the book with ease. “The games are but sport,” he says, “representation of life, but not the thing itself.”
But every time Morris’ narrative lulls the reader back into enjoying himself, somebody talks and ruins everything. Morris had to intend to write his dialogue this way, and at least one or two readers or editors at Titan Books had to agree with it, but for the life of me, the rationale escapes me.
“Babble continues to flow as if water itself,” Crassus says at one point. “Gather thoughts and sharpen point.” Agreed. Book hamstrung by linguistic gambit.