I'm very glad I did though - as ever with Caroline Lawrence's books, I thoroughly enjoyed this. After taking months and months to read a very long non-fiction book about America and American history (In America: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak, which I thoroughly recommend, but it took me a while to get through it) I devoured this one in a few nights. I was so pleased to finally sit down and spend time with these characters again. My heart will always belong to Flavia and Nubia, but Juba, Ursula, Fronto and Bouda are equally engaging and likeable characters with fascinating stories to tell.
As a British person living in England, the special joy of this series lies in the setting in Roman Britain, and in recognising familiar places. I love the Roman Baths at Bath, so the visit to Aquae Sulis was great fun. I've still never been to Caerleon, so this was another reminder that I really need to get there! I also really enjoyed the descriptions of British Iron Age village life (which made a refreshing change from Roman, though I sympathise with Fronto feeling more at home in Roman buildings!).
The story is framed by the Celtic festivals of Samhain and Beltane, and features two very different giant Wicker Men. These are best known from the film(s) but, as the book tells us, they are described by Caesar and Strabo, and I've been teaching these texts (looking at them together together with the evidence of human sacrifice from bog bodies) for years so I got a kick out of that. You can still see a sort of survival of this custom in some Guy Fawkes celebrations - I went to Bonfire Night in Oxford in 2010 and the 'guy' - usually a human-size figure in early modern dress sitting on the bonfire - had been replaced with a giant wicker man which was set alight.
|It was impossible to get a decent picture,|
but this is the giant corn dolly/Wicker Man on fire!
On the Classical side, one particularly effective scene has the two young girls, Ursula and Bouda, kidnapped while they are out picking flowers and making garlands in a spring meadow. This clearly followed ancient descriptions of the abduction of Persephone and was all the creepier and more effective for it. Thankfully, the girls' abductors had a different aim in mind than Hades did.
The first book in this series, although it followed all three Roman children's perspectives, focused primarily on Juba, and this second highlights Fronto. His story, in which he joins the army, reminded me a little of Rosemary Sutcliff's classic The Eagle of the Ninth, and brought with it another fascinating change of scenery. Presumably the third and fourth books will highlight Ursula and Bouda - I'm especially looking forward to the Bouda volume, as she is still a bit of a mystery here!
I've already ordered the next book, which promises to have gladiators in it, always one of my favourite ancient tropes. I'm confident it won't take me another two years to read it! (Come back in two years and find out...!)