This book is the first in a new series for younger children (about 8yrs), a spin-off by Caroline Lawrence from her middle grade series of novels, the Roman Mysteries. It follows the adventures of Threptus, a young apprentice to the soothsayer Floridius in Ostia during the reign of Domitian.
Warning: You should probably read neither the book nor this review on a full stomach! Or just before a meal.
In the grand tradition of Scooby-Doo, this book gives kids all the thrills of encounters with demons and spirits, while always providing a more mundane (though in this case still fairly exciting!) solution to go with its real-world setting. We feel Threptus' fear as he encounters terrifying demons in sewers and midnight wells, but we know that ultimately the cause will turn out to be something benign or even useful. The story makes full use of the Roman setting in that, whereas a modern Scooby-Doo type ghost story would have to acknowledge that not everyone is likely to believe in ghosts, Threptus and the other characters here genuinely believe in the possibility of demons in the sewers, which makes their fear that much more real. Floridius exploiting that fear for financial gain at the end is perhaps rather naughty - but that's also very Roman (and realistic!).
The language in the book is neatly balanced between simple English and exotic Roman words and phrases. I remember when I was about six and reading The Chronicles of Narnia, I used to love using the phrase 'brings up the rear' (once I'd asked what it meant), which sounded terribly exotic, and there are plenty of new words and phrases for kids to get their teeth into here. There are also some Roman numerals right at the end - perhaps I was the only child who really enjoyed working out all the numbers on our clock with Roman numerals on it, but I'd have loved it.
One thing this books really brings home is the reality of some aspects of Roman life. As you will have gathered from the title, there is an enormous amount of focus on human waste here (and farting too). Since the book is for younger children, this is generally referred to as 'poo' and 'wee' (sometimes 'vomit' - 'sick' isn't really specific enough). Kids love this stuff of course - but as an adult, it really brought something home to me. Books aimed at older readers tend to use more formal words to describe these things - you might get a description of a torture victim or the hold of a slave ship being covered in 'faeces' or 'urine'. But as I read this book, I realised that nothing brings home the reality of such a situation like the use of the word 'poo'. Maybe it's just me, but when I read 'faeces' I'm somewhat detached from it. I accept that this is what happens in these situations and move on. When I read the word 'poo', I can almost smell it, and I can certainly see it (and in some of the book's most colourful parts, feel it). I suppose a description of torture or the mistreatment of slaves wouldn't really benefit from using the word 'poo', as it wouldn't seem serious enough, but I found it fascinating that I could really feel - and smell, and see - the ancient world much more strongly when viewed through the language of childhood and of immediate experience rather than the slightly drier, more formal language of written work.
Floridius, played by Mark Benton in the TV series based on the Roman Mysteries. I like to think this chicken is Aphrodite, of whom I became very fond in this book.
In theory, this book comes after the Roman Mysteries, but younger children will be quite happy to read it first, as it doesn't require any knowledge of the earlier series. The only slight downside is that it gives away a tiny aspect of the ending of that series - but only one detail about one character and nothing about anyone else, so I don't think that would be a problem. It's beautifully illustrated by Helen Forte - I particularly like the frontispiece, which not only depicts a scene from the book accurately, it includes a man with the most wonderfully comical look of constipation on his face. You know exactly what he's going through, poor thing. A lively start to this new series - I look forward to the next one!