This review shouldn’t contain such big spoilers as the last one, but for those who don’t like to know much at all going in, caution is advised!
Much like certain other well-known children’s series, as The Roman Mysteries passes the halfway mark (technically somewhere halfway through Book 9, The Colossus of Rhodes) it starts to build slowly towards the final conclusion, which will come in Book 17, The Man from Pomegranate Street. Some of the earlier books had cliffhangers that led on into the next book (notably between Books 2 and 3, The Secrets of Vesuvius and The Pirates of Pompeii, and between Books 7 and 8, The Enemies of Jupiter and The Gladiators from Capua) but from Book 13, The Slave-Girl from Jerusalem, onwards the stories begin to form part of one bigger story that will culminate with the end of Titus’ reign in the last book. Kids, if you can, persuade your parents to buy Books 13-17 all at once from Amazon, so you don’t have to wait for the next one! Each book still has its own conclusion, providing a satisfying ending to that book’s particular story and a conclusion to various plot threads, but the plot of each feeds into the overall story and sometimes not everything is as it seems.
The upshot of all this is that, although I have now finished the series, there are some aspects of the main plot I don't want to talk about too much here, for the benefit of anyone who hasn't read Books 15-17. (I also drafted this review before I finished the series, and I’m known for guessing the endings of things and not always being entirely right, and then I feel very embarrassed. Old Housemate/Best Friend – the one I watched Rome with – once spent 14 hours on a train with me going on about how I knew exactly who the Half-Blood Prince was, and wasn’t it obvious. I was completely wrong. I apologise to her about this from time to time).
This doesn’t matter, though, because The Beggar of Volubilis fits into one of my favourite sub-genres, the Quest story. Quests come in all shapes and sizes, often but not always in fantasy, but my favourite type is the variety where our heroes have to go on a long journey across difficult terrain to get to wherever it is they’re going. In Beggar, our heroes have been sent to find a gem for the Emperor, and thanks to a missed ship, they are forced to travel overland across the desert to get to Volubilis (in modern Morocco) from Sabratha (in modern Libya). The book’s descriptions of the desert and of life with a camel train are lovely. When I was a child, I loved stories about the desert – that’s partly why I loved The Horse and His Boy – and this is a good one. It also has something of a Famous Five vibe about it – rather than their usual practical caution, the children here run away from home and strike out on their own. They have good reasons for doing so, and it’s nice to see them standing on their own without adult assistance, making this a particularly exciting adventure for them. There are the usual fun nods to pop culture as well – in this case two pantomime artistes called Hanno and Barbarus – like Hanna Barbara perhaps?!
Also, I was always going to love this story because our heroes spent the entire time with one of my favourite animals - camels!
Camels! Aren't they gorgeous? That's me below, apologising to my camel - mentally named You B*****d in honour of Sir Pterry and for trying to throw me off sideways - here, I'm saying sorry for sitting on him wrong and making friends. He was much better behaved on the way back! These pics belong to Another Old Housemate/Best Friend, who deserves much respect and gratitude for letting me talk her into getting on a camel!
This book has a lot of fun playing around on the edges of Roman history. Basically, the titular Beggar is either a mad beggar who used to work for the Emperor Nero or, just possibly, Nero himself, having persuaded another to die in his place and escaped (something that was genuinely rumoured at the time – no member of the Imperial Family could die without someone turning up and insisting they were, in fact, the deceased and ought to be on the throne – it happened to Postumus as well). I confess, I love the idea that not only did Nero survive to become a mad beggar in North Africa, but that he was genuinely talented at playing the lyre! History assumes that he was really bad at it and that everyone around him was just toadying up to him when they gave him prizes or praised his playing, but I rather like the notion that, terrible, terrible Emperor though he was, he might really have been good at music.
[Edited to add - there was some very interesting stuff about Cleopatra in this book that I meant to talk about and forgot! Will discuss it when I do the next episode of Rome, which introduces Cleopatra].
It’s lovely to read a story that takes us beyond the well-trod ground of Rome, Athens, Egypt and the Near East and introduces us to a new area of the Roman Empire, which was not far off its biggest expansion when this story takes place. For the most part, this story is also pleasantly fun – there is certainly danger, as Flavia in particular discovers, but there is also a real sense of adventure here. This is because the children have, like Flavia’s uncle (and Jonathan’s brother-in-law) Gaius, literally run away from their problems at home and, in Flavia’s case, run away from the prospect of growing up, getting married and possibly dying in childbirth. Much as they acknowledge the wrongfulness of this, as Gaius agrees to return and Flavia reluctantly concludes that marriage might not be so bad after all, the fact that they have left behind the mourning in Ostia to travel across an exotic landscape creates a more fun and exciting story than would otherwise have been possible.
Camel outside the amphitheatre at El Jem, Tunisia. The muzzle makes me sad, but I love the coloured thing on his back.
This was a review copy.