On the day of her seventeenth birthday, Fallon, a fierce Celtic princess, expects her life to change: her father will name her a member of his war band, her people will defeat the Romans, and her childhood sweetheart will ask her father for her hand. But, instead, in one night, everything goes wrong and, in pursuing blind vengeance, Fallon is kidnapped by slavers and whisked away to the city of her greatest enemies — to Rome itself and an elite training school for female gladiators, owned by Julius Caesar himself. Now a slave and an aspiring gladiatrix, Fallon must navigate rivalries, politics, and budding love as unexpected truths and mysteries are revealed.
Lesley Livingston’s young adult historical fiction book, The Valiant, is the inspiring story of a young woman faced with difficult choices and challenges as she transforms from princess to slave to gladiatrix. The book is packed full of badass female characters and an awesome (think the original awe-heavy definition) main character who is battling the conflicting desires for freedom, love, and fame even as she is overcoming death in the gladiator arena. She faces her hardships with confidence and fiery courage and even sees the greater strength in accepting allies, friendship, and advice into her life. She is both diplomatic and combative; princess and warrior; scared and strong; and, above all else, true to herself and those she loves. Fallon is an amazing and inspiring female role model who shares with readers a penchant to reject others’ attempts to categorize or capture her, declaring that she isn’t target practice for others but “a moving target.”
Fallon’s badassery isn’t the only aspect of The Valiant that makes this a must-read: Livingston’s writing is beautiful, descriptive, and emotive. Told from a first-person point-of-view, Fallon’s hardships and successes are well-written in a concise but detail-packed manner. There were several descriptions, interludes, and thought-processes that were so beautifully emoted that I had to re-read a passage or, sometimes, put the book down and revel in it. The Valiant and Livingston’s writing talent thumb their noses at critics of young adult literature and their assumptions that the marker “YA” denotes less-crafted writing and plot.
As mentioned above, much of Fallon’s experiences in Rome revolve around interacting with enemies and allies alike. These relationships are, initially, male-heavy. Her father, childhood sweetheart, and betrothed all see her as female, as object to be traded or protected, not honed as a weapon or political leader. Her first two allies in her later hardships are also male characters: her slaver and a Roman military officer, both of whom simultaneously underestimate her and value her highly as an enslaved object. This all changes, however, when Fallon is purchased by Caesar’s preeminent gladiatrix school. Here, she is surrounded by women, allies, enemies, caregivers, teachers, and warriors alike. Fallon makes friends — her best friend Elka is amazing beyond words and can kill you before you’ve had a chance to blink — and even comes face-to-face with Cleopatra, who advises and supports her and other girls. The romantic subplot(s), even, never overshadows the overall story and instead fuel Fallon’s fire rather than dousing it. These empowering and caring as well as challenging relationships in The Valiant make Livingston’s latest significantly unique among young adult books.
My only concern in reading The Valiant was its use of plot twists and mystery to shroud both Fallon and the readers’ full knowledge of events. There are several twists that are obvious long before Fallon uncovers them while several eerie mysteries pop up last minute, just prior to the finale, that receive no time for resolution. And, while the final chapter feels like the conflict has been mostly resolved, these last minute reveals seem to suggest a sequel is on its way, even though it feels as if we’ve reached a wrapped-up conclusion. While I wouldn’t mind a follow-up to Fallon’s latest adventures, the happily-ever-after feel of the book’s final chapter doesn’t insist on the necessity of a sequel.
Ultimately, The Valiant is a story of a girl, a princess, a warrior, a gladiatrix — all one — who discovers not only her own power but also the strength of friendship, allies, love, and trust even thousands of miles from home. A beautifully-rendered historical tale for young adults, Livingston’s latest empowers its female characters, inspires its readers, and illuminates female friendship, strength, and resilience even in the darkest of places.