Sunday, 7 August 2016

Escape from Rome (by Caroline Lawrence)


Fans of The Roman Mysteries, rejoice! This book is the first in a new series that forms a direct sequel to The Roman Mysteries. Set a few years later and aimed at slightly older readers (as you can tell from the slightly smaller type!), although this story features new, teenaged, lead characters, it also includes appearances from some of the main characters from The Roman Mysteries. While not resolved in this first volume, the series also promises to wrap up the main significant dangling plot thread from the end of that series as well.

The new leads are a likeable group of children descended from an African freedman, forced to run away to Britain when the historically unpopular Emperor Domitian has their parents murdered. I liked the book's treatment of race, which is accurate to the period. Racism certainly existed in the ancient world, and we encounter it towards the end, when a rich black character chooses to keep blonde, pale-skinned slaves (including one albino) in a reaction to a white man who had kept black slaves. However, in the Roman world, status and money were far more important than race, and that is accurately reflected in the book; this also allows the story to showcase a predominantly black cast of main characters in an historical story that is not about Afro-Caribbean slavery or US Civil Rights, which seems to me to make a pleasant change (not that there is anything wrong with those stories, but they do tend to dominate, especially in the Young Adult market!).

Like all Caroline Lawrence stories, the cast of characters also includes characters with disabilities, the less physical ones not well understood in the Roman world (like the Western Mysteries, this series includes a main character on the autistic spectrum). In addition to exploring how the children deal with their disabilities, the story also explores in some depth the effect such challenges can have on other children within the family, and that was nicely done, acknowledging the effect of the problem without ever implying that it was unsolvable or excessively burdensome.

The story also evokes a wonderful sense of place and highlights several sites that children lucky enough to be able to reach them might like to visit - in particular, Fishbourne Palace in south-east England, and the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, which now sits outside the train station for Ostia in Rome (as well as Ostia itself, of course, the main setting for many of the Roman Mysteries). Not being a very visual person, I always find it easier to appreciate a site when I can attach some kind of story to it, and this is a perfect way to get excited about a visit to Fishbourne! (More so than the Cambridge Latin Course, fond as I am of it!).

I also really liked the chapter headings, which are Latin words - a list with translations is provided at the back. Some are guessable from context, others need to be looked up to be understood - and I confess, I had to look one up myself! (For some reason 'fax', meaning torch, not electronic mailing device, has not been a major part of my Latin vocabulary so far). They are definitely a good way to improve anyone's Latin vocabulary. At the same time, it doesn't matter if the reader doesn't understand them or doesn't want to stop to look them up - it might even help to increase the suspense not to know what they mean.

This is a fast-paced, exciting and dramatic story that I really enjoyed. It reminded me of some of my favourite elements from classic children's literature, like the kitten that reminded me of a favourite Arthur Ransome character, and unsurprisingly the whole thing felt very much like a spiritual successor to Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth. I look forward to the next instalment - partly because there's still that dangling mystery from the earlier series that's oh so close to being solved...

All Caroline Lawrence book reviews

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Eye in the Sky (dir. Gavin Hood, 2016): A modern Iphigenia


Greek tragedy often sets a up a moral problem in which the interests of the oikos - the household, i.e. the family and family unit - are at odds with the interests of the polis - the city, i.e. the political state. In some cases, we as a modern audience can understand the dilemma - surely Antigone, for example, should be allowed to bury her traitor brother? And yet, we understand that Creon is tenuously holding on to hard-won power and nervous of any sign of frailty.

In other cases, however, we might find it difficult to see the choice as a real choice. When the goddess Artemis demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his young daughter, Iphigenia, so that the Greek army can get the right winds to sail for Troy (for an aggressive attack supposedly intended to retrieve his sister-in-law), it can be hard for a modern audience to sympathise. How could we ever consider killing a young girl in the hope of gaining a better wind?

At least since the publication of Jonathan Shay's excellent Achilles in Vietnam if not before, though, a number of scholars have been working on interpretations of Greek myth as stories which allowed the Greeks to deal with real traumas in a metaphorical way, much like the best science fiction and fantasy does in the modern world. A myth about a hero who is driven mad by a goddess and attacks his family, for example, may be an expression of very real incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder experienced, though of course not diagnosed, by returning Greek soldiers. In myth, the gods are the cause of the trouble, but these divine figures may be metaphors for more human causes.

The sacrifice of Iphigenia does not bear any particular relation to post-traumatic stress disorder, but it may reflect real experiences of Greek soldiers and the agonising decisions they have to make. We see almost the same decision, minus the personal connection, play out in Gavin Hood's excellent Eye in the Sky (which is also Alan Rickman's final on-screen performance, and a fitting swan song for a great actor). In this film, British and American forces face a dilemma - they have a chance to kill a group of dangerous terrorists, but doing so will almost certainly kill or severely maim an innocent little girl. What should they do?

Of course, in ancient Greece, drone warfare did not exist and this exact dilemma could not have happened. But enemy camps would not necessarily have been devoid of women and children, even in the ancient world. Camp followers would have been present, and some of them may have had children. Officers also sometimes brought their wives and children with them - in the Roman period, a group of mutineers were famously pacified when they frightened away the two-year-old Caligula and his mother. It is not inconceivable that an attack that would provide a strong tactical advantage would also kill or harm innocent children, and of course, any attack tended to result in the enslavement of the women and children on the losing side.

Agamemnon's specific dilemma (killing his own daughter) is unlikely to have occurred, just as the specific set of circumstances depicted in Eye in the Sky, while plausible, is fairly unlikely. But both Iphigenia and Eye in the Sky's Alia stand for all the young girls and boys killed or maimed, directly or indirectly, in warfare. The decision-making process in reality may not be so calculated or so personal, but any military attack, especially if it is anywhere near a civilian habitation, may bring with it innocent casualties, and those in the military must weigh up impossible decisions concerning the rights and wrongs of any such attack, decisions the rest of us hope never to have to face. That was a dilemma that affected the ancient Greeks just as much as it affects the modern military, and the fates of Iphigenia and Alia are a reminder of the true weight of those decisions.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Queen of the Silver Arrow (by Caroline Lawrence)

A couple of years ago, I reviewed The Night Raid, by Caroline Lawrence (author of The Roman Mysteries), a book written especially for dyslexic teenage boys and published by specialists Barrington Stoke. Queen of the Silver Arrow is a new companion volume focusing this time on female characters (The Night Raid was a re-telling of a story from Book 9 of the Aeneid, while Queen of the Silver Arrow re-tells a story from Books 7 and 11). Like The Night Raid, the content of the story is aimed primarily at older readers, but in simpler language and shorter sentences, paragraphs and chapters than you might expect in a Young Adult book.

Both books are, true to the source material, fairly downbeat. Without wishing to discuss the ending in too much detail, this volume works hard to produce a satisfying ending from a tragic story, and largely succeeds, mostly by making a point of the changing attitudes of the narrator Acca and her friends to the Trojans. The book is an inverse of The Night Raid in several ways, not just in focusing on characters of another gender, but on characters fighting on the opposite side of the same war, and the books work particularly well if read together, providing two difference perspectives on some of the same events.

The content of this book is not quite as violent as The Night Raid, but it doesn't pull any punches when it comes to battle scenes, and if any young readers catch the brief appearance of Nisus and Rye from that book in this one they might be a bit squicked out. It is interesting to see that the story also explores the use of make-up, clothing and hair-styling for young girls. I remember a (male) friend once complaining to me about the amount of time dedicated to styling in The Hunger Games (a similarly themed story in many ways), but I felt that was an absolutely essential part of the story, because so much of how people respond to young women is determined - however subconsciously - by how they dress, do or don't make themselves up, and style their hair. This story actively explores the use of hair, make-up and clothes to project what the young woman wants to project, and the ways in which that can be manipulated, which is interesting - as well as providing plenty of action and allowing its young heroines to hunt and fight alongside male characters in other chapters.

Classicists will enjoy spotting who's who and reading an enhanced and expanded re-telling of the story of Camilla. Like The Night Raid, the book echoes Virgil's Latin where appropriate, particularly in its description of Camilla's final battle (Virgil, Aeneid, 11.794-835). Most of the names have been kept the same here as they are reasonably easy to read, except Tarpeia, who is called Tarpi, as Euryalus was re-named Rye.

I enjoyed this book very much, and especially in conjunction with The Night Raid, as they make excellent companion pieces. Hopefully boys who enjoyed The Night Raid will be encouraged to read this, and girls who enjoyed this will be encouraged to read The Night Raid!

See my reviews of Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries series here.

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