Spoiler warning – I’m going to start this review by revealing the end of the story, so turn away now if you want to be surprised!
Having said that, the reason I’m starting at the end is that when a book opens with a dedication that apologises to the actors for killing off their characters, followed by the opening sentence ‘Someone was going to die; of that he was perfectly sure’, the ending is not intended to be a surprise. When one lead female character is heavily pregnant, it’s also pretty clear who it is who’s going to kick the bucket. Alas, poor Miriam. In a way, it had to be. These books are intended to educate as well as entertain and although we know Flavia’s mother died in childbirth, that has less impact for young readers because it's the sort of old wound that you find all over children’s books. Orphans and children with missing parents crop up all the time, because getting rid of the parents frees the children up to have adventures, and their loss is rarely a source of mourning, except in Harry Potter. In the Roman Mysteries, Flavia does mourn the loss of her mother, but she does so along with all three of her friends (before Jonathan and Lupus’ mothers reappeared) and her loss has nothing of the trauma of Nubia’s, so it gets a bit buried (no pun intended). The death of a young character’s sister, however, a character we have got to know and who is barely older than our heroes, really brings home the dangers of marriage and childbirth in a pre-industrial society. Having cheated and started on the next book already, I know that this is a theme which is important in the following book, as Flavia and Nubia have to face the reality of marriage and the very real possibility of an early death, so it’s an important element to introduce. It’s a shame poor Jonathan has to suffer even more though. Much as he behaves in a thoroughly foolish manner sometimes, let’s hope God and Fortune smile on him a bit more in the remaining few books, as he does seem to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop more often than not!
Most of this story, however, is not about the misery of childbirth (thankfully). In fact, it’s a courtroom drama with some very nice fictional examples of Roman legal speeches, giving readers a flavour of what Roman justice was like. All the courtroom scenes are nicely done, but the most effective is probably the scene where one of the prosecutors attacks our heroes’ characters (which is not particularly difficult to do, given the events of the previous books). We readers know that our heroes are good and honourable and that there are explanations for all these things, but the judges and spectators do not, and respond with hostility. This is both an excellent demonstration of how Roman law worked, with character assassination at the heart of the legal proceedings (Cicero’s Pro Caelio is probably the best known example) and a sound lesson to young readers – a brief summary of selected highlights of someone’s history (all of which, in the story, were true, but misinterpreted) does not give you an accurate picture of their character.
The solution is nicely dramatic and incorporates that old favourite of pre-DNA testing courtroom dramas – the Wound That Could Only/Could Not Be Inflicted By A Left-Handed Person. Some of the other clues are really clever. Two are based on Latin (and no, I didn’t get either of them, but this is due to my usual inability to find clues in detective stories rather than a lack of Latin) and one is based on the Roman law concerning wills. Readers are not, of course, expected to pick up on these until they are explained in the narrative but it’s nice to think that someone with a good knowledge of both Latin and Roman law, and a better head for these things than me, might be able to pick up on them by themselves. And the one based on the different uses of the ablative is a lovely touch – perhaps readers who later study some Latin will be able to go back and see how it works.
The archaeological site at Masada
The other theme of this story is, of course, the suffering of the Jews in the Jewish Wars and, more specifically, the mass suicide at Masada. This is reported by Josephus, who claims that 960 men, women and children killed each other in a suicide pact (leaving the last man to fall on his sword) but that two women, one of whom was related to the leader, Eleazar, and five children escaped. In the novel, the titular slave-girl is one of these five children, and her mother was the woman related to Eleazar. In Josephus’ account, the mass suicide is an example of bravery and nobility, as in Roman culture, it was considered noble to fall on your sword rather than face execution (or, for the women and children, slavery). In the book, it is used by the prosecution against the defendant; the prosecution agrees with Josephus and calls Hephzibah, the defendant, a coward for not entering into the pact. The sympathetic characters, however, including the Roman soldiers who found the seven survivors and one of whom is one of the murder victims, unanimously view the event as a tragedy, wisely reflecting modern sympathies rather than Roman ones, as well as reflecting the very different attitude of someone who witnessed these events rather than someone who only heard them as a second hand story. The idea that Josephus bought the survivors and interrogated them on the incident is a nice one, that is perfectly plausible and would explain his intimate knowledge of events (though the extremely long speeches he includes in his account are clearly inventions on his own, in the usual tradition of Roman historians – Livy was particularly notorious for this).
This book is not actually as miserable as I’m making out here! The romantic subplot between Flavia and Flaccus (yes, the famous Flaccus) that develops over several books jumps ahead in leaps and bounds in this one. Flaccus is like a hero from Jane Austen – he can swoop in and do essential tasks only someone of his class and wealth could do (though his first, disastrous attempt at oratory is quite amusing). Hephzibah’s story is tragic but it ends well and there are a few minor characters who are quite delighted at how it turns out. The tragedy is mostly restricted to 'flahsbacks' and to the very end, and Miriam’s story is only very loosely connected to the trial (knowing she’ll probably die partly from premonitions and partly because she’s having twins, which is trickier, she needs Hephzibah alive and free to raise her children and she arranges wet nurses for the children during the story). Doctor Mordecai, who is forced to kill his daughter to save his grandsons, is the worst off, but the repercussions of this are almost entirely carried over into the next book – Slave Girl itself is a thoroughly satisfying courtroom drama with a really nice, intricate collection of clues and a satisfying conclusion.
Alas, poor Miriam. We knew her, Horatio. This image is from her wedding from the TV adaptation, but it's pretty! (C) 2008 LEG
This was a review copy of the book.