I recently wrote an article on Caroline Lawrence's children's historical detective series The Roman Mysteries, which will be published soon at the online The Journal of Historical Fictions, and Caroline is coming to give a talk at Newman University, where I work, on 20 March 2019. She was kind enough to send me an Advanced Reading Copy of her forthcoming children's book, her first venture fully into the world of science fiction and fantasy (though she's paddled around the edges of SFF before - which is what my article is about!).
The Time Travel Diaries tells the story of Alex, a London teenager of Greek descent who travels back in time to Roman London. I've always enjoyed timeslip and time travel stories - as a child, Tom's Midnight Garden was one of my favourite books, and as an adult, I've really been enjoying the Outlander TV series (I haven't read the books yet, but I plan to!). (I also loved reading Time Travelling With a Hamster a couple of years ago, but that was a bit different, as it involved travelling much less far back in time!).
One of the biggest benefits of timeslip stories, especially in children's literature, is that it's a lot easier for the author to describe the past clearly when they can use a common frame of reference with the reader. Lawrence uses lots of references to movies and to modern life to explain what's going on to readers as we see everything through pop culture junkie Alex's eyes. It's more than just a few modern references, though. Characters who come from the past don't take note of every aspect of their surroundings every time they walk out of the door any more than we would. In taking us to Roman London with a modern time traveller, Lawrence provides vivid descriptions of the sights and smells of the past world, drawing out all the sorts of things that would seem completely normal to a Roman but completely strange to us. I especially loved her descriptions of the smells of the ancient world, which can be the hardest part to imagine, but is often the most evocative.
Another of my favourite things in novels is a strong sense of place, and if it includes descriptions of real places, so much the better, so I really enjoyed the use of the London Mithraeum as the location for the time portal in this story. Lawrence's rules for time travel are quite strict (far more so than most timeslip stories) and I appreciated the emphasis on the physical location of Roman London (underneath the modern city). The scenes set there will also hopefully encourage children and their families to visit the site, which is free and very much worth experiencing, as the 'immersive experience' (plunging visitors into darkness and using light and sound to evoke an ancient ceremony) is very effective.
Of course, the other advantage to setting anything in a Mithraeum is that we don't know much about the secretive cult of Mithras, which gives authors lots of room to invent detail. The scenes that take place in the Mithraeum are thoroughly researched and follow current thinking about what went on in the cult, but ultimately we don't really know, so stories can take us to places history can't and fill in the gaps however they want to. I won't spoil Lawrence's visualisation of a Mithraic ceremony here, but it fits the known evidence and sounds just about the right level of strange but not too strange to me! (Particularly the symbolic - but not real - actions taken as part of the initiation ceremony).
Of course, my absolute favourite thing about Lawrence's strict time travel rules was that she doesn't hold back on the language issue. Alex is chosen to travel back in time to the Roman world because he's been going to Latin club, and he's able to communicate fluently when he gets there because he's fluent in modern Greek (modern Greek is quite closely related to ancient Greek, far more closely than modern English is to Old English). The other time traveller in the story is Romanian and is able to understand a little because modern Romanian is quite close to Latin. The book is full of snippets of Latin dialogue, so it will be a brilliant read for anyone with a little bit of Latin (or who needs to revise Latin for an exam!) - but all the Latin is clearly translated, so it's not a requirement to read the book! I love languages so I really enjoyed that aspect of the story.
The three main rules for time travel given to Alex are that he must travel naked, he must not eat anything, and he must interact as little as possible. The naked rule was quite funny and resulted in some amusing scenes as the boys try to find clothing. Interacting as little as possible is a good goal to have but, of course, will always turn out to be impossible or there wouldn't be much of a story! I have to confess I was a bit less keen on the rule about not eating or drinking. I would have enjoyed descriptions of taste as well as smell (the time travellers can drink, but tend to stick to water), and while I understand that fasting is something practiced all over the world for many reasons, for personal reasons I don't really enjoy reading descriptions of teenagers deliberately avoiding eating food.
The novel forms a neat and self-contained story. Only pre-pubescents can time travel according to Lawrence's rules, and the story centres around a girl who died shortly after the events it depicts. This is another link with the real world, as she is based on a real girl whose body was excavated from Roman London, and I love that readers can actually go and see her in reality. It does mean that there isn't anywhere else for the story to go, though! However, nothing is impossible in the world of fiction, whether we join Alex and his friends again, or follow new adolescents back in time (though it's hard to imagine a better qualified pair to time travel to the Roman world than a Greek and a Romanian! An Italian teenager maybe?). Plus of course, a time machine can go to all sorts of places, and isn't restricted to the Roman world - though since Lawrence is a Classicist I suspect if we see more of Alex or the time machine, we'll return to ancient Rome!
I really enjoyed this book, especially the really evocative descriptions of Roman London. I'm good with words but I have terrible trouble visualising things, and Lawrence's descriptions, combined with setting memorable scenes around mud flats and bridges (rather than just stating that they're there) and a clear map really helped me to picture Roman London in a way that I haven't before. It's also nice to be able to visit sites like the Mithraeum or read about the real girl with the ivory knife who inspired the story. I hope the scientists in Lawrence's fictional world find a way for older teens to time travel so that we can go back in time with Alex once again!
The Time Travel Diaries will be released on 4th April 2019 in the UK.
All Roman Mysteries reviews