‘Twelve-year-old Dido dreams of becoming the first female charioteer at the great Circus Maximus. She’s lost her heart to Porcellus, a wild, tempestuous horse she longs to train and race. But such ambitions are forbidden to girls and she must be content with helping her father Antonius – the trainer of Rome’s most popular racing team, The Greens – and teaching the rules of racing to Justus, the handsome young nephew of the Greens’ wealthy owner. When her father is brutally murdered, she is forced to 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 and terrifying new enemy… the emperor Caligula.’
I loved Circus Maximus: Race to the Death and I truly hope that Gray continues to write in this genre, as the story is a wonderfully enthralling tale while being beautifully informative about the time in which it is set. The incorporation of details from history and creating characters from historical figures engages with them in a way that makes them intriguing and an excellent starting point for young readers who may already have an interest in ancient Rome or find their interest sparked by the book itself. I especially liked that the evidence from ancient writers is extrapolated upon to create whole scenarios and interactions that feel believable and are that enjoyably convincing within the fiction created that any concern as to whether there is any possibility of events ever having happened doesn’t arise. It is simply a delightful story and I would very happily read more set in Gray’s vision of the ancient world.
The narrative follows Dido, whose greatest wish is to become a female charioteer, but who finds this obviously out of her reach in a world where doing such a thing is out of the question for a woman. Hers is not some idle dream that she hasn’t dedicated herself to, for Dido has worked with horses under the watch of her father and often picks up details that others fail to notice, and she’s also developed the skills to train the horses and drive a chariot better than the boys who take their right to do so for granted. It would seem all that is stopping her is her gender. Any chance she has of eventually getting her way seems lost when her father is murdered and she overhears what she shouldn’t, forcing her to abandon her current life and seek out another, away from Rome, and piece together fragments of information that she has about her family and history. I don’t want to delve too far into spoiler territory, but I enjoyed seeing Dido forge new relationships and seeing how far (or not) those she meets are willing to assist her and why.
One feature of the narrative that I particularly liked was that there isn’t a huge focus on how being a girl is what would make Dido any less than her male counterparts. The emphasis feels more on the fact that her difficulties in this respect are purely owing to Roman customs of the time, in which many women have little freedom to make their own choices and are expected to operate only in the domestic sphere. Though there are those who put her down and remark that how she behaves and what she wants is unnatural for a woman, it is plainly painted as jealousy and a desire to dismiss a level of skill that they find threatening. She has worked to be as skilled as she is and quite obviously loves all that she does; her achievements feel more owing to her dedication and determination than any twist of fate that might help her.
Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is out today and is recommended for children aged 9 – 12, though I can see some slightly older children enjoying it a good deal as well. Thank you, Zephyr Books, for sending me a copy for review!