Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is an epic adventure with a personal story at its heart and is a book that both excites and engages the reader from the opening page. Hugely enjoyable, full of breathtaking action the story hurtles the reader into a different historical world featuring, in Dido, a character who today’s young readers will relate to and root for.
In Rome during the reign of Emperor Tiberius Dido dreams of becoming the first female charioteer at the legendary Circus Maximus. She adores Porcellus, a wild, tempestuous horse she longs to train and race. But these ambitions are forbidden to girls and Dido must be satisfied with helping her father Antonius, the trainer of Rome’s most popular racing faction, The Greens. When her father is murdered, she is forced to flee Rome and seek refuge with an unlikely ally. But what of her dream of Circus triumphs and being reunited with the beloved horse she left behind in Rome? And the threat to her life isn’t over as she faces a powerful new enemy… the emperor Caligula.
Annelise Gray has a classics doctorate and worked as a Latin teacher and a historical researcher so this meticulously researched debut children’s novel has an authenticity to it that adds to the enjoyment and the realistic atmosphere conveyed throughout the story, However this never feels like a history lesson or a text that is trying to cram in facts and I enjoyed it hugely. The excitement and the drama is combined with a coming of age story that is moving and engaging. Dido, the name itself conjuring up an image of the strong woman of legend, is brave, intelligent and loyal and her dreams of competing in a man’s world are what drive her ambition and hard work. The plot however also allows the reader to witness her kindness and vulnerability and also her desire for justice and revenge. Dido’s love and understanding of horses is central to her dreams and this aspect will have huge appeal to horse loving readers. The cast of characters includes some real historical personalities, notably Caligula, and this careful mix of story and reality subtly draws the reader in to an ancient world of intrigue and power and increases the sense of being part of something that actually took place.
The chariot race scenes are full of vivid action and danger and the author conveys the atmosphere of tension and drama effectively. The publicity material describes this book as National Velvet meets Ben Hur and I have wracked my brains for an alternative but none sums up this cracking adventure so aptly. There are quieter moments too and I enjoyed the development of the relationships and watching Dido mature as the story progressed. It is refreshing to read a novel aimed at a middle years audience that is set in this historical period and this is a story that may well whet the reader’s appetite to discover more.
With my background in school libraries I can’t quite let go of the habit of matching books to readers in my mind as I read a children’s book and there were a great many I would have paired with Circus Maximus. A thrilling story, a fabulous lead character and best of all this is the first in a new series with the second title due to be published next year. This, I think, would particularly appeal to readers at the transition stage of primary to secondary.
I should like to thank Fritha Lindqvist and the publishers Zephyr Books for providing my review copy. Circus Maximus:Race to the Death was published on 4th March and is available to purchase online or via your nearest independent bookshop which can be found on this map.