Monday, 22 July 2013

The Roman Mystery Scrolls: The Two-Faced God

As Britain cooks in the hottest summer we've had in years and we all run out and get a combination of heatstroke and sunburn, or cook in our non-air-conditioned offices, I have been enjoying a story about New Year's, the coldest time of year! Normally I have no problem sympathising with Threptus' problems, but it is strange reading about how cold he is as you feel your legs burn...

In the latest of Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries spin-off series for younger readers, Threptus must evade bullies, investigate a haunted house and find a way to save his boss the embarrassment of fainting at the sight of blood when he's supposed to be performing an extispicy (examining the entrails of a sacrificed animal for divinatory purposes). The story is nicely layered and moves at a brisk pace, and the inclusion of a four-year-old girl allows for some very natural-feeling exposition of Roman rites and customs (Threptus' exasperation with her questions is quite funny). On the other end of the scale, Floridius' alcoholism is hinted at through Threptus' nine-year-old eyes, creating a story suitable for and comprehensible to children, but adding an extra, poignant layer for older readers.

I especially liked Threptus' solution to Floridius' fainting problem because it made use of some of the real aspects of Roman sacrifice. Whereas Greek ritual sacrifice was performed with the head uncovered, the Roman custom was to cover the head with a fold of the toga (unless sacrificing to Saturn). Although Floridius manages to get the butcher's boy to perform the actual sacrifice, he still has to read the entrails - but he covers his head so thoroughly that no one realises his eyes are closed! It's quite funny, and it's a really nice detail of Roman sacrifice to bring in.

The use of the butcher's boy to help with the sacrifice is also useful in a couple of ways. For one thing, although the world of sacrifices and entrail-reading is very alien and possibly frightening to modern children, relating the practice to butchery makes it both more understandable and less scary - children are well aware of the existence and purpose of butchers, even if they and their family are vegetarians. It also emphasises the fact that the animal will be eaten at the feast and afterwards - being religious does not equal being stupid, and the ancients would not waste valuable meat on incorporeal and invisible divine beings. That's why they had the myth of Prometheus.

This book seems to provide a conclusion to Threptus' story. By the symbolic date of New Year's Day, Threptus and Floridius have gained a promise of regular meat to stop them going hungry which, as Floridius himself observes, cannot be gambled away, they have warm clothes to see them through the winter, a good patron and support from the local magistrate, Threptus' former bullies have mended their ways and now owe him a debt, and Floridius is even showing signs of conquering his drinking problem. If this is the end for Threptus, then I'll be sad, because I enjoy these books, but glad to leave him on such a warm and happy note. And the final pages offer a tantalising hint that, though his solo adventures may be over, this may not be the last we see of Threptus - or, even more excitingly, of our old friends from the parent series... Fingers crossed we'll be seeing them all again sometime soon!

All Roman Mysteries reviews

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