Euge! I won a signed copy of The Sewer Demon by Caroline Lawrence in a Twitter competition from the Big Book Babble! This sent me into slightly unreasonable levels of excitement. Partly because I’ve never won anything in a prize draw before, but mainly because The RomanMysteries series has been a favourite of mine for a long time.
But, aren’t they children’s books? Yes, of course they are, but like Disney cartoons, they’re absolutely delightful for grownups too. I would class them as ‘family books.’ They’re funny, clever, exciting, and historically accurate. I think they are some of the best stories set in the Ancient World in either adult or children’s fiction. Besides, I’m fairly sure I never actually grew up...
I was introduced to the Roman Mysteries books by my cousin’s daughter, who a) was in love with the series, and b) was amazed and overjoyed that she had written to the author, Caroline Lawrence, and Caroline had actually written back! Not all authors will do this, mainly because they are so busy, but I remember having a similar experience when I was younger and it really does make such a difference to a child. Anyway, I was studying Classics at university at the time, so “it’s about Romans” was (and still is, if I’m honest) enough on its own to get me excited. A combination of ‘Romans’ and ‘friendly author’ meant they were a must-read. I borrowed one from the library, reading horribly out of order (The Sirens of Surrentum), and on the strength of that one book alone I bought a set of all the books written to that point, with the beautiful second generation covers. Every single one was good, and I’ve been collecting them ever since.
The Sewer Demon is a companion book to The Roman Mysteries series, moving away from the Roman Mystery children to focus on a new main character, a boy called Threptus. Readers of The Roman Mysteries books might remember Threptus, who popped up in The Man from Pomegranate Street, and in ‘Threptus and the Sacred Chickens’ in The Legionary from Londinium and other Mini Mysteries. Threptus is an eight year old boy living in Ostia, once a beggar, but now working for Floridius, who is a prophet, soothsayer, amulet-seller and dealer in sacred chickens! This is the first in a new series called The Roman Mystery Scrolls, which seems to be aimed at slightly younger readers, with shorter books and ruder humour.
The same easy-going and humorous style of The Roman Mysteries series is found in this book, with plenty of jokes that both young readers and their parents can enjoy. The curses (Pollux!) and exclamations like ‘Great Juno’s Beard’ always make me laugh out loud. Because the story is set in Ostia, familiar faces and places appear. At one point Threptus is forced to crawl through the town’s sewers, and learns why the local magistrate Bato should never eat cumin-dusted eggs. The mystery is intriguing and solving it is fun, with the usual variety of fascinating Roman facts and titbits incorporated into the story. I’ve never noticed anything un-historically accurate in a Roman Mysteries book, and the same goes here (makes sense – the author really knows the Ancient World).
Caroline Lawrence has a wonderful ability to conjure up places and people so well in so few words, and her characters are always so alive they jump off the page. (The little illustrations that accompany each chapter pick up on this brilliantly. Here’s my favourite.) The pacing is spot on, there are no boring bits, and no scene is wasted or ‘filler.’ It’s a very easy read. This would make it a perfect book for younger readers or less confident readers, before diving into the more complex mysteries and plotting of the Roman Mysteries stories. It’s also a great companion book for readers who are already fans of the Roman Mystery world.