This review was written for, and first appeared, at Speak Its Name.
It's not often anymore that a book catches me completely by surprise, taking turns that you just don't expect an historical romance to take. "Gaius and Achilles" surprised me, and I don't mind saying right up front it was quite a pleasant surprise.
We're first briefly introduced to Achilles and Hippothous, two aristocratic Greek youths of Paphos, on the island of Crete. The two young friends consider themselves lovers, although Hippothous would prefer the relationship conform to Platonic ideals, while Achilles yearns for greater physical expression. The men are both selected to compete in the Pythian games, and set sail along with the cream of the island's youth for Delphi. Unfortunately, they're set on by pirates, taken captive and sold into slavery in Italy.
When we first meet Gaius, he's whipping a slave boy, only it's not really a slave, it's his boyfriend Antyllus, and he likes it. Or, maybe he doesn't. Antyllus was once a slave, but now he's a free man with a successful acting career. Unfortunately, he's a sadly damaged and self-destructive young man who can't seem to stop playing mind games with his boyfriend Gaius (sigh, been there). Gaius is almost driven mad by his young lover's mercurial temperament, but finally wises up and resolves to part company with Antyllus.
Gaius escapes to his country estate, which he hasn't visited since he was a boy. His uncle, who raised Gaius when his parents died, used to look after the vineyard for Gaius but he has now passed away, leaving Gaius with the responsibility to look after the business which provides his income. Soon after his arrival, the estate is embroiled in turmoil. It seems the steward, Rufus, has purchased a new slave who is quite unruly, and has even tried to escape. Rufus wants to whip the slave into submission, but the more Gaius hears, the more concerned he becomes and so he asks to see the slave for himself.
The slave is, of course, Achilles and under questioning it becomes clear that Rufus has purchased the young man, at considerable expense using Gaius' money, to act as his own personal sex slave. Achilles quite naturally balked at this. Rufus had, quite wrongly, assumed his new master would be some addle-brained upper class twit. Once he figures out what is really going on, Gaius has Rufus quite literally peeing his toga.
Gaius takes pity on Achilles, and tries to more gently ease him into his new life as a slave. He makes the young man is personal servant and treats him with respect. He is also strongly attracted sexually to Achilles, but Gaius has a surprisingly strong moral code, especially for a Roman. He won't take any man, even a slave, without their willing consent. So, he sets about wooing Achilles, which doesn't prove difficult. The young man, in spite of himself, is also attracted to his new master. Gaius gives the beautiful youth the physical expression of love that's long been denied him, and allows Achilles to explore the darker desires he's long suppressed. This is where things get really interesting, but Achilles can't give himself totally to Gaius. He pines for his lost lover Hippothous, whose fate remains unknown to him, and he still rebels at the idea of his enslavement.
"Gaius and Achilles" is set at the very end of the republic (that's the Roman republic, dears, this isn't Star Wars fanfic). Julius Caesar is as yet an up-and-coming young politician, mentioned a few times in the story. The author, apparently writing under a pen name taken from the time of the setting, seems to be a serious student of the Greco-Roman period and has woven a rich background for the story. There are vivid details about the daily life of a country villa. Everything, right down to the foods eaten at every meal, rings true to me. It's all delivered in a very readable style that never becomes pedantic.
The historic detail alone makes this a very capable story, but it's the relationship between Gaius and Achilles that really sets this book apart as something entirely unique in my experience. Many 'serious' historical romances - those not intended simply as one-handed reads - often tread quite lightly when it comes to sex. Even when they do get descriptive, the sex is often rather vanilla. The depictions of sex between Gaius and Achilles is quite unabashedly detailed and erotic. But what really pushed it over the edge into something completely different, what made me stop and think "wow" when I realized where it was going, is that the sex between the two men moves quite firmly into the realm of BDSM (Bondage, Discipline and Sado-Masochism). That was really just totally unexpected in a historical romance set in ancient Rome. Non-consensual sex in a master/slave relationship is one thing, but consensual BDSM is quite another.
It took me a little while to see what the author was doing. This isn't all about shock and titillation. What the writer manages to do is set up a rather exquisite tension between the two sides of Achilles' personality. On the one hand, there's his public persona, the free-born Greek aristocrat who can't wrap his head around now being a slave, someone's property, with no control over what happens to him. On the other hand is Achilles' private self, with a sexuality at its core that has an strong need to serve a master. He finds strength in submission, and joy in the pain of a whipping. It's the tension between these two opposites that sets the theme of the story.
It's in the description of the BDSM scenes that I found the closest thing to a flaw in the book. There was something rather 'modern' about the scenes - safe words, boundaries and limits are openly discussed. These things are very important to the story, in making Achilles feel comfortable enough to submit to Gaius' domination, but they still felt somewhat out of place in ancient Rome. Although the Romans left plenty of documentation about what they got up to in bed, I doubt we have the level of detail to know if they understood the importance of safe words. This wasn't one of those things that jars you out of the story, it was more a slow realization, and frankly, once I noticed it I simply overlooked it and read on. It doesn't really detract from the story.
In then end, I felt the author was acting rather more responsibly than most. I do read a fair bit of BDSM, and even review it for another site. A lot of what gets labeled as BDSM really isn't. It's non-consensual sex, sexual torture and even outright mutilation. In "Gaius and Achilles" the author has shown how two (or more) consenting adults can engage in extreme sex safely. She probably could have glossed over some of the safety details without detracting from the story, but I think it actually becomes more powerful the way it is.
Hippothous is not completely forgotten in all this. He's constantly in the background, forming a wedge between Gaius and Achilles. We get regular updates on his adventures as well. He is first sold to a brothel, but he fakes a seizure his first night on duty and is promptly resold, this time to a merchant with need of a Greek scribe. This at first seems a more suitable position, but his talent soon lands him in trouble with the senior slave, who frames the lad for theft to get him out of the way. While awaiting his fate, which will be whipping, or worse, Hippothous is allowed to escape by his master's daughter and soon falls in with a gang of bandits.
It becomes quite obvious early on that, for the story to resolve itself, Achilles and Hippothous have to meet again. When they do, Achilles is forced to choose between his friend and his lover, between the freedom of Paphos with it's moral restrictions and life as a slave to Gaius allowed to explore his innermost desires. It's not much of a choice, really.
This book pushed a lot of my buttons, and more importantly, it pushed a combination of buttons I don't expect a single story to push. That said, I realize this book is not going to appeal to everyone. In fact, I suspect it's going to be one of those stories that people either love or hate. There won't be much middle ground. If you have a taste for extreme sex, you'll probably like this book. If too much sex in a book is a turn-off, just don't read it.
I decided to give "Gaius and Achilles" 4.5 stars. The main reason I'm not giving it 5 stars is that, while it's a ripping good yarn, it didn't really tug at my heart-strings (although other bits got fondled). There's nothing I can really put my finger on to account for this, the characters are well rounded and likable. I suspect it's down to the remoteness of the time and circumstances. I just couldn't get into the head of an ancient Roman or Greek aristocrat, and I certainly have absolutely no frame of reference for what it's really like to be a slave, with absolutely no control over what happens to me. Others might get into it more easily, and really be tugged by Achilles's situation, so I don't consider this a real failing of the book.