Friday, 26 June 2009

When in Rome...

Roman Mysteries - Caroline Lawrence

Way back in 2001 I read a book called The Thieves of Ostia, the first book in the Roman Mysteries series. I fell in love with it at once and couldn't wait for the second one to be published. I've been like that ever since, eagerly awaiting every new book.

The series appealed on a personal level and also on a professional level. Here was a great series that was good enough for both adults and children, it wasn't fantasy and better still you could recommend the books without ever giving away the plot: "its like the Famous Five but set in ancient Rome." You knew straight away if they were the right books.

Now 8 years and 17 books later I've just finished reading the final book in the series The Man from Pomegranate Street and I feel really quite sad.

The series itself only spans about three years. In that time our four heroes (Flavia, Jonathan, Nubia and Lupus) have left Ostia to visit Rome, Pompeii, Rhodes, Delphi, Ephesus, Alexandria and many more places. They have caused problems, solved mysteries and even ended up as part of the action in the Colosseum. Many Greek and Roman myths have worked their way into the stories along with copious amounts of Latin and history, however at no point have they felt like text books, all the details given are vital to the plot, even if they turn out to be red herrings.

The books are so accurately researched that when I was lucky enough to visit Ostia I was able to use the map at the front of the books to navigate my way around the ancient town nearly 2000 years, even though it is now an archaeological site not an inhabited town. Having visited both Rhodes and Ephesus after reading the books I can also say that Lawrence's books bring these places to life far more vividly than tour guides and travel books. Even with all of this detail however nothing gets in the way of the story.

Although these books are aimed at readers considerably younger than me I have without exception found them all gripping, and often I haven't been able to work out the solution to the mysteries. The amount of detail included meant that even when I did solve the problem it didn't matter because I wanted to learn more about Flavia's world. Lawrence doesn't flinch from portraying Rome exactly as it was, these books aren't sanitised for younger readers, but despite the gore, disease and dirt I'd love to have a time machine and travel back to meet Flavia et al.

The characters grow believably through the series, they are very 3 dimensional and to be honest not likeable all of the time, just as people in the real world aren't. By the end of the series many of the story threads that have been running through the books since page one are tied together satisfactorily, there are no shocking surprises, it is just how the children would have grown up in the real world. There is scope to write more but to my eyes the ending was just about perfect.

However old you are I do recommend trying these books. As an adult they won't take you long to read but I pretty much guarantee you'll enjoy them if you like historical fiction, or if you liked the Famous Five books when you were a child.

Caroline Lawrence's wonderful website can be found here

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