Oddly enough, this one reminded me of Harry Potter in a couple of places (and not just because I'm re-reading Potter at the moment). The first was when, for a split second at the beginning of the story, I was worried that poor Captain Geminus really was a goner, as, like Potter, this is a children's series that is not afraid to kill likeable and good characters when the plot demands it (I also thought Arthur Weasley had really gone for good in The Order of the Phoenix). One other thing the two series have in common, though, is knowing exactly where to draw the line between killing off enough characters that the series doesn't feel too safe or predictable, but not killing off so many or such beloved characters that readers are put off - I think I've explained before why I refuse to read Philip Pullman any more?! (I also think killing Harry would have been a huge mistake, but that's a debate for another time).
Of course, I haven't finished the series yet, so watch Captain Geminus die at the beginning of the next book just to prove me wrong!
The other thing that reminded me of Potter was the characterisation of Flavia who, in this novel, reminded me a weeny bit of Harry in The Order of the Phoenix - coming into the very emotional, self-centred (in the sense of not being able to see other sides of things, rather than lack of genorosity) rather shouty phase of teenage years, a few years ahead of Harry of course, since girls go through certain aspects of teenage life earlier than boys. Also like Harry, Flavia has a pretty good excuse for behaving as she does, since she is still in shock and traumatised from the attack on her father.
This is a book in which the reader is expected to work out the mystery before the detective, clearly signposted early on when Flavia ignores the doctor's explanation that her father's amnesia is the result of a blow to the head and becomes convinced that he has been cursed and that she must find the culprit to get him to lift the curse (perfectly reasonable for a Roman child, but less so for a modern reader). Of course, modern readers will know, or their parents will tell them, that Flavia is wrong and the doctor is right, and so the reader is primed to look for the clues that Flavia misses, and even I managed to work out the solution before Flavia did (this is very, very unusual, I love mysteries but I'm rubbish at solving them, even the Agatha Christie ones). This is rather nice, allowing the reader to solve the puzzle ahead of their heroine and emphasising the fallibilty of our heroes, though it is an unfortunate side-effect that Flavia becomes a bit irritating over the course of the book as she refuses to see the truth. Nubia, meanwhile, is definitely my favourite character, as she is, as ever, the most sensible and level-headed of the children and the most perceptive.
The story takes us from Corinth to Delphi to Athens, accompanied by Jonathan's guide book, which is, sadly, a little under 100 years too old to be that of Pausanias, but is very similar. All three cities are clearly described, along with the route taken by the children (and their guide and bodyguard - as ever, the books remain sufficiently attached to reality that these children do not travel alone, though Flavia is in charge). We meet the real - as opposed to mythical - women of Greece, who are often veiled in public and who have less independence than their Roman counterparts - an excellent reminder of the differences between the two cultures, and the fact that Greece stayed Greece even under Roman rule. I also rather liked the references to the strong Spartan woman who's a mix of real Spartan indepedence and mythical beauty, it was a fun combination.
The Corinth canal - which didn't exist in Roman times of course - from our trip there 10 years ago
There were other fun touches too, my favourite being 'he will live long and prosper' in the Pythia's oracle, though that might just be my Trekkie brain over-reacting. Lupus finally gets something nice happening to him as well, thank goodness, though his reunion with his mother is so brief, it doesn't seem quite enough somehow and I'm holding out hope for more in the later books. Oh, and I've been watching too much Rome and Spartacus: Blood and Sand - every time Flavia says 'Great Juno's peacock!' I read 'Great Jupiter's cock!' This may be deliberate... All in all, another fun and intriguing entry into the series with a nice emotional undercurrent in the idenitity of Captain Geminus as the victim, giving the story greater interest and enotional depth.