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The Sirens of Surrentum - Caroline Lawrence

Book Review by Ursus

Inspiring kids to read these days is no mean feat in the wake of crumbling educational systems. One is considered lucky if one's child buys into the global media hype of Harry Potter. Even luckier, supposedly, are those who start studying Elvish at the behest of Tolkien. I am not myself a parent, but I wonder offhand if there is something better to inspire children than overblown fantasy epics. Were I to have kids, I'd want to teach them something more valuable. I'd want them to learn history, to taste of the knowledge and glory of our illustrious cultural forebears. In so many words I'd want to groom them for Romanophilia. Thanks to Caroline Lawrence and her Roman Mysteries series, we now have something to educate the next generation of UNRV members.

I have to say for the record that I'm not especially inclined to fiction, much less juvenile fiction. Nor am I particularly enamored with the mystery genre. I prefer to engage scholarly works that deepen my understanding of history. You might then suspect me a poor candidate to write an article on a mystery thriller for younger readers. Indeed, were I not kindly asked to do so I probably would not have done so of my own accord. But my opinions and talents as a reviewer were indeed solicited, and in retrospect I am glad to have entertained the request.

Most of you reading this are, I venture to say, scholarly yourselves. You probably often read dense books on ancient history that most of your friends outside a university faculty would find deplorably boring. And you have probably been that way since adolescence, having attained a penchant for historical and cultural inquiries at a precocious age that the majority of your peers could not reciprocate. But how did you get that way? What was the initial spark that facilitated your interest? Did you see Roman reenactors marching in formation? Did you behold the monumental remains of Antiquity scattered throughout Europe and the Middle East? Or perhaps you saw a film classic like Spartacus or Ben-Hur and identified more with the Roman establishment than the slaves and provincials whom the films championed.

In my case, my sixth grade teacher showed a token educational film on Roman history. While most of my classmates seemed insufferably bored, I was enraptured. I wanted to know more about these Romans and how they lived. But - and here is the tragedy - there was little in the way of material available to satiate my curiosity. There was no end of the educational establishment's pre-packaged garbage on a wide variety of topics, but there was nothing really written by educated Romanophiles for the benefit of budding young Romanophiles.

Those days are over, by Jove! Gone is the dark age when little Johnny and Sara found themselves bereft of reading material suited to their age. Someone gifted by the Muses has come to change all that. Caroline Lawrence is the author of a burgeoning series of juvenile fiction set in Ancient Rome. Four intrepid young sleuths travel about the empire, solving mysteries in their own little way. But, and more importantly for our purposes, contained within these novels is a compelling slice of Roman life and history that serves to nourish and inspire a young reader. Books like these are the proving grounds for the future of Romanophilia; the kids that read them will soon mature to become the consumers and producers of scholarly material on ancient history. Therefore, in their own way, they are an equally valuable contribution to Romanophilia as any scholarly work produced by Oxbridge or the Ivy League.

The author is herself no stranger to the Oxbridge crowd. Caroline Lawrence, a native Californian, studied classical archaeology at Cambridge. She also studied Hebrew and Jewish studies at the University of London. Certainly these are some impressive credentials to write on ancient history.

And it shows, too. Admittedly I have only read one book in the series - The Sirens of Surrentum - but if that one book is indicative of the entire series, then young readers have a considerable exposure to ancient Rome. The novel is set a few years after the eruption of Vesuvius, in a Roman villa by the Bay of Naples. Flavia Gemina, the Nancy Drew of Antiquity, recites choice quotes from The Aeneid. Class differences in the ancient world are ever present, as Flavia is an equestrian whereas she interacts with many patricians and slaves. Present in a book, via character conversations, is as good an overview on Stoicism and Epicureanism as I have ever seen anywhere. As a background to the story, the history of Nero and his mad reign is illuminated. Finally, as a nice touch, Flavia is betrothed to a young Suetonius, history's principle witness to the early empire.

The story itself is entertaining enough on its own merits. The idea of four pre-teens solving crimes is of course a bit ludicrous, but this is a children's book after all. Once you get past that, there are some adult themes displayed. Passion versus reason, indulgence versus fidelity, innocence versus maturity. I particularly liked how Flavia is counseled by an elder not to indulge fleeting lust over more stable relationships. Her hero Aeneas is presented as the triumph of duty over passion. This is something many pre-teens need to hear judging by the number of teen pregnancies.

The four detectives are reflective of the multi-cultural nature of the empire. Flavia Gemina is an Italian of equestrian status. Jonathan ben Mordecai is Jewish; from what I can gather his family fled the Jewish revolt and subsequent Roman suppression. Nubia is a dark-skinned, freed slave girl. Then there is Lupus, who appears to be a low class orphan - and mute. I think I identify the most with Lupus - silent, but reasonably intelligent when not afflicted by hormonal attractions to the opposing gender.

The plot revolves around the suspected poisoning of the mistress of the villa where the quartet is staying. First the lascivious and philandering husband is investigated. Once he is ruled out, the husband's many mistresses become suspects. The final solution to the mystery is not wholly unsurprising, but is consonant with the literary and philosophical themes of the book (think of Queen Dido and the Aeneid ....).

Amazingly the book is written in a clear yet intelligent prose which can convey classical civilization to a young mind while still holding an adult's attention. The initial maps and drawing of the villa are a nice visual introduction to the setting. The glossary of words at the back are priceless; I learned a new expression: "euge" ("hurray!" in Latin). All in all, a great achievement.

Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter? Overrated tripe, I say. What do hobbits and wizards have to do with anything? Give the neighborhood kids a copy of the Sirens of Surrentum. Instead of growing up to be geeks who wear fake Elvish ears to conventions, they may just become urbane classical scholars one day.

Read the interview with the author!

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Book Review of The Sirens of Surrentum - Related Topic: Suetonius


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