This is a very different type of story from The Pirates of Pompeii. Where that was an adventure story involving kidnapping and slavery set in the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius, this is a much more domestic story. This story is about young love, and about a child in a single parent family coming to terms with a potential step-mother, and I'm sure many young readers will identify with Flavia's tribulations here. It's a wonderful idea to use the same basic set-up - children solve mysteries in ancient Rome - to tell such different stories, and I suspect every reader will end up with a different favourite, according to their different tastes.
This story also comes closer to fantasy than most, as Flavia has two significant dreams over the course of it. As you know, my thesis is on dreams in ancient literature (but not the dream of Scipio - wrong period, but I will read it for background!), so I could go on about the dreams for pages, but I'll restrain myself. There were two main types of dream story in the ancient world, the message dream (a god or deceased person comes and delivers a message) and the symbolic dream (everything else!). Flavia's first dream is a message dream from Hercules, the sort of dream that crops up all over ancient literature, both in poetry and in history, but people probably didn't actually experience much, if at all (this point is debatable but I really don't want to put half my thesis on here - just trust me!). This dream sets up the rest of the story, as Flavia follows clues relating to the Labours of Hercules to try to solve the mystery surrounding her proposed new stepmother. This is a bit like the sort of dreams you see in Greek romance novels, which send the characters off on their adventures - which is very appropriate! Flavia also doesn't fully understand the nature of her 'offence', which Hercules refers to, at first, fitting with another popular theme in ancient literature, that of the misunderstood oracle or dream.
Flavia's second dream is much more like a real dream, Roman or otherwise. It's a confused fever dream which ends on a beautifully touching note that any reader who's lost someone close to them can easily relate to.
Obviously, Flavia and her friends don't actually carry out the Labours of Hercules, but the clues are neatly arranged to relate to the stories. The closest anyone comes to actually accomplishing a Labour is actually Nubia's 'defeat' of an escaped lion in an exciting and tense sequence (it should be called The Twelve Tasks of Flavia and her Friends!). There's a lot of fun to be had with the small group of escaped animals, including an ostrich which the children mistake for a Stymphalian Bird and a 'camelopard', which is eventually revealed to be a giraffe.
Camelopards and Stymphalian Birds! You can see them if you squint... Photos taken at Longleat Safari Park, 2006
There are some great details of Roman everyday life in here, and I have to join Jonathan in his reaction to the ingredients of a love potion - ewwwww! I love the Saturnalia setting as well, which allows the characters even greater freedom than they normally exercise. I didn't notice as many pop culture references (possibly because I kept reading while half asleep) but there was a lovely Midsummer Night's Dream feel to the developing love triangles in the woods, despite the midwinter setting (one of the unfortunate lovers is called Lysander). I'm rather fond of Flavia's habit of swearing 'Pollux!' because (and I have no idea if this is intended or not, it might just be my wicked mind!) it sounds a bit like one of my favourite curse words... The thought that Flavia is in love with The Godfather also continues to amuse me.
Ostia, where Flavia and her friends live. Usual apologies for photo quality.
Of course, there are instances of artistic licence. Even given the Saturnalia setting, Diana's behaviour is a tad excessive, and there's no real evidence for the Tarantella from as early as this - in fact, the Romans weren't quite as keen on dancing as the Greeks, though there were Roman dances, including one danced by maidens in honour of Juno. On the other hand, this is the sort of thing that, though it can't be proved, can't be disproved either, so it's not unreasonable to include it in a fictional story.
I enjoyed this book very much, but (without wanting to give too much away) the ending was awfully sad (and, being based on a flu epidemic, a teensy bit unsettling) - hopefully the next one I read will end more cheerfully!*
*(This is one of the good things about the books, though - like The Pirates of Pompeii, this book pulls no punches on the realities of ancient life).
Edited to add some pretty pictures, thanks Caroline!
The new cover of this book and Lupus, Nubia and Flavia in slightly inaccurate Satrunalia clothes from the TV adaptation (© 2008 LEG)
Miriam in Roman bridal couture, from the wedding that takes place at the end of the book (© 2008 LEG)