Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Scribes from Alexandria

As with The Beggar of Volubilis, I’m going to avoid going into aspects of the plot in too much detail because each book runs into the next and the story is not yet complete, but beware the odd spoiler anyway.

This story takes place entirely in Egypt, a place to which I have never been, though it’s on my list. Ever since I first saw the 1978 film of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, I have wanted to go on a cruise up the Nile, and in this book Flavia, Jonathan and Lupus do exactly that. (You would have thought the ‘death’ part would have put me off, but no). Well, it's not exactly a cruise, it's a dangerous quest full of peril, but they go up the Nile on a boat, is the point! I’m glad I have seen Death on the Nile, as the film has some lovely footage of the Colossi of Memnon singing – incorrectly, in the film, at sunset, but whatever – and these are highlighted in the book – it’s nice to be able to put a picture and sound to the description.

The book is a great way to introduce children to some wider aspects of Egyptian history, beyond just pyramids and mummies. The pyramids and mummies are there, of course – I think child readers would feel cheated without them. Although I haven’t been there myself, the creepy atmosphere going into the Great Pyramid matches the way OldHousemate(theRomeone) described it and while there are no mummies of the traditional, jump-out-of-a-sarcophagus kind, we do get to visit the mummified corpse of Alexander the Great, which is even better, as it expands the reader’s horizons a bit while still including a mummy. And the story is based around the idea of a treasure map and a trail of clues in the form of riddles, which is nice nod to various Mummy movies, particularly the idea of the map.

But we see so much more than pyramids and mummies here. Alexandria, for a start, which enjoyed enormous fame in the ancient world but is not now depicted as often as Rome or Delphi. Movies that reference ancient Egypt tend to be science fiction and fantasy movies set in the twentieth century which head straight for the pyramids, or they’re Biblical epics, telling stories from much further back in Egypt’s past. The Roman period is not touched, as the movies like to focus on the moment just before Egypt became a Roman province, so that they can focus on Cleopatra. This story highlights Greco-Roman Egypt, post-Alexander and post-Cleopatra, a period with which children are much less likely to be familiar. From this, they can learn things like the fact that camels were brought to Egypt from Arabia by the Romans, about Alexandria and the afore-mentioned corpse of Alexander, about the tension and hostility towards the Romans among Greek and Egyptian-speaking Egyptians and about the difficulties of travelling in a desert country with only the crocodile-infested river as a highway. (There are lots of crocodiles. Poor Flavia is certainly forced to come to terms with her crocodile-related trauma in this one!).

We met this crocodile on holiday in France. It was found, as a baby, in a sewer in Paris, so they had painted its habitat like a sewer, which seemed rather a shame, as it was a bit dim and gloomy. Here, it is eyeing up my brother and myself, wondering which one of us is tastier.

The book also features a young guide boy named Abu – I don’t know if he’s supposed to be named after the monkey in Disney’s Aladdin, but it made me smile.

What I liked most about this one, though, was Nubia’s story, and for reasons that have nothing to do with Classics. Nubia learns a painful but important lesson here – that sometimes, you can’t go back to your original home. I moved house a lot as a child and felt surrounded by stories about people wanting to go home and usually getting there in the end (this is why I’m not too keen on Meet Me in St Louis. Voyager is an exception, though it annoyed me that Neelix, who really was looking for a new life, ended up abandoning the ship to live with a group of the people he’d left behind). This just makes you feel worse than you already feel. But sometimes, as Nubia discovers, you find that life has moved on and you can’t go back, but need to embrace a new life somewhere else.

There's another thing or two from this book that I want to talk about, but I'll wait until I review the last book, The Man from Pomegranate Street, since so many plotlines cross several books at this point! Only two more to go...

What, you thought you were getting away without a camel picture?! Thanks to OldHousemate (theTunisiaone) for this!

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