Flavia Gemina is a young girl growing up near Rome in the year A.D. 79. She lives with her father, a sea captain, and several servants, as her mother died when Flavia was an infant. Flavia is a quick-witted, curious girl, and as the book opens we see her using her powers of deduction to solve the mystery of her father's missing signet ring. She wishes she could solve a real mystery, something important, and it isn't long before her wish comes true.
Someone murders her neighbors' dog in a most gruesome way, and Flavia, along with her neighbor Benjamin (a Jewish boy close to her age who has recently moved next door), Nubia (a slave girl from Africa), and Lupus, a young beggar boy, work together to solve the mystery. They are a diverse group of kids, and their differences make them an excellent investigative team, because having different backgrounds enables each child to contribute valuable insight that the others lack.
The investigation leads to all kinds of adventures, some of them truly terrifying to the children, such as being chased through the necropolis by ferocious wild dogs and being hunted through the town by slave traders. The children's friendship develops nicely through the course of the novel, and there are wonderful sensory details along the way that make the historical setting vivid and colorful.
I read this book when it first was published, and I enjoyed it immensely. I hesitated to read it to my children for quite a while, though, because the mystery is so gruesome - it involves dogs being beheaded, and while the reader doesn't have a deep emotional attachment to any of the dogs involved, it is still violent and upsetting. I warned my girls before we started, and while they found it disturbing, the violence isn't depicted too terribly graphically, and they were all right with it. I'm glad I warned them ahead of time, though! The time period is clearly one in which children faced all kinds of dangers that my own kids don't really have to think about (being chased by rabid dogs or slave traders, or being mutilated like Lupus, who has had his tongue cut out), which led to some interesting discussions about how people lived in ancient times. I liked that the author included children with such different backgrounds, as it added additional perspective to the story.
We all enjoyed this one, and it was one of those books where they kept clamoring for more whenever our reading time came to a close. I love when that happens! They related to the characters, and they also enjoyed recollecting facts from when they studied ancient Rome. I am glad there are so many books in this series. I doubt we'll have time for me to read them all to them, but I expect they'll be inspired to move on with the rest of the books on their own. Very sensitive young readers might want to steer clear until they're a bit older, but I'd recommend this in particular to lovers of mysteries, action and adventure, and historical settings. It's a whole lot of fun.
Books in the Roman Mysteries series:
1. The Thieves of Ostia
2. The Secrets of Vesuvius
3. the Pirates of Pompeii
4. The Assassins of Rome
5. the Dolphins of Laurentum
6. The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina
7. The Enemies of Jupiter
8. The Gladiators from Capua
9. The Colossus of Rhodes
10. The Fugitive from Corinth
11. The Sirens of Surrentum
12. The Charioteer of Delphi
13. The Slave Girl from Jerusalem
14. The Beggar of Volubilis
15. The Scribes from Alexandria
16. The Prophet from Ephesus
17. From Ostia to Alexandria with Flavia Gemina
18. The Man from Pomegranate Street
The Thieves of Ostia (#1 in the Roman Mysteries series) by Caroline Lawrence (Roaring Brook Press, 2001)
Also reviewed at:
A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy: "The kids take action; they do things, rather than having adults do things for them. They ask questions, get in trouble, and work things out."
Kids Books That Rock: "It’s a rare thing to find a book that captures the interest of an 11-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl and their (ahem)-year-old mother. These books are keepers for sure!"
The Scribbling SeaSerpent: "This is a wonderful book that really brings Ancient Rome to life – you can almost taste the figs and smell the dusty streets."