Here are some things I know nothing about: Horses. Sport. Autism. Gambling. It might just be said that I am, perhaps, not the best qualified person to judge a story about an autistic charioteer and a plot to sabotage a chariot-racing team that may or may not be connected with a gambling ring.
But hear me out before you give up in disgust! One of the few sports that does grab my interest is racing in general and motor racing in particular - specifically, Formula One (do not ask me about any other type of motor racing, you will get a blank stare). And Formula One - or motor racing in general - is probably the closest sport to chariot racing in the modern world (actually, Nascar is even closer, due to the shape of the track, but I don't watch that). Actual horse racing might be said to be fairly close, of course, but the feel of one jockey urging his one horse to beat the others is not quite the same as the tactics required for a driver to edge his vehicle around the competition, sometimes working tactically with his teammate (both sports are usually played by men, which is a great shame - my childhood dream was to be a Formula One racing driver). This is the one modern sport that captures the excitement and sadly sometimes, though thankfully not often, the danger of chariot racing. So I do know a little about the fun of watching this sort of sport, and I can tell you that the book captures that feeling of excitement perfectly.
Like the best sports movies, this story builds up a feeling of despair and a series of disastrous losses before coming out in a splendid high at the end. This must be the most exuberant conclusion to any of the Roman Mysteries I've read so far. After the downright tragic ending of Twelve Tasks, the bittersweet endings of The Gladiators from Capua, The Assassins of Rome, The Colossus of Rhodes and The Sirens of Surrentum, and the happy but slightly muted ending of The Fugitive from Corinth, this is the first I've read since The Pirates of Pompeii to have a truly happy ending - and it outdoes Pirates in sheer exhuberance and joy, which is a delight to read. The traditional arc of the sports story is emphasised by references to some of the worst aspects of Roman slavery in flashbacks to Nubia's background, followed by the best outcome of slavery for a Roman, as Sisyphus is suddenly freed with the final victory. This makes the story about so much more than which set of horses wins a race and effectively uses the Romans' slave trade to enhance the sports story, while also maintaining a sense of the horrors of the world outside the Circus.
Unfortunately, the ecstatically happy ending is undercut by the Author's Note, which explains that one of the main characters was inspired by a man who died at the age of 27. But even this cannot entirely take away the joy of the story's conclusion, since it is pretty obvious that a Roman charioteer is not someone destined for a long life - we've already seen a dozen of them trampled, dragged and battered over the course of the book. Essentially, Scopas/Scorpus (and Pegasus the horse) has made the choice of Achilles, choosing a short but glorious life over a long but dull and unfulfilled one, and since he has made the choice freely, knowingly and willingly, the book's glorious ending can still stand, even against his ultimate untimely death (not that I'm advocating the idea that any sport is worth someone's life, but we are talking about ancient Rome, where there were an awful lot of other things around that could kill you).
Model of the Circus Maximus, from vroma.org
As a balance to the down-to-earth horse racing, the book also makes substantial use of visions and horse whispering - which I understand is a real thing, but I know absolutely nothing about. Unfortunately my ever-reliable Nubia, normally so sensible, does something spectacularly stupid in this book, though she does at least do it for good reasons (which ensures that her actions are plausible and still within character). This is probably a good thing - her friends have done so many silly things over the course of the books that it was about time Nubia caught up - they are children, after all! And her reasoning is very noble, if flawed.
The book is also full of the usual fun references, including mentions of Incitatus without ever suggesting he was actually made a senator or a consul (hurray!) and a plot revolving around a great play on the idea of the Trojan Horse - summed up by Jonathan in this brilliant line - 'Sagitta was like a Trojan Horse... only filled with fear, not Greek soldiers' (I don't know why, but that made me smile). As I mentioned above, the book also includes an autistic character, though of course none of the Roman characters are able to identify the illness, they just think he's strange (the Author's Note explains it). I remember reading a Babysitter's Club book that highlighted autism when I was little (I was an eleven-year-old girl, this was the height of literature at the time!); I think it's the sort of thing that it's useful to highlight in children's books, so that they realise strange behaviour can be the result of illness and is not a reason to bully someone. It's also a handy reminder that people down the ages have probably suffered from the same illnesses and allergies as us, but without names for them (restrospective diagnosis is a form of scholarship I find very interesting, though it's pretty much impossible to do with any certainty, considering how difficult it still is to diagnose a patient who's right in front of you, never mind one who's long dead).
The chariot race from Ben-Hur. Just 'cause it's awesome, inaccuracies notwithstanding.
I now proceed eagerly to the next book, in hopes of seeing Sisyphus again and finding out what he does with his freedom, but also with a slight sense of dread that, life being what it is, our heroes may never be this purely happy again...