The Man From Pomegranate Street (Roman Mysteries) by Caroline Lawrence

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The Man From Pomegranate Street (Roman Mysteries) by Caroline Lawrence

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: The seventeenth and final volume of Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries series attempts to draw together the threads of the four young detectives' numerous adventures as they unravel the story behind the sudden death of Emperor Titus, encountering self-doubt and mild torture as they go. Essential for Roman Mysteries' fans – otherwise mainly pleasurable for its glossary of Latin terms.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 264 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
ISBN: 978-1842551936

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In AD89, a group of friends attempt to solve the mysterious death of Emperor Titus. Was he killed by his successor, the enigmatic Domitian? Their search for the truth teaches them as much about themselves, as they border on adult responsibilities, as it does about solving crimes in Roman times. This is the final volume of the Roman Mysteries series.

The collecting bug for children really kicks in in the latter years of primary school, so a book series for this age group that has its basis in historical fact, so kids learn as they complete the series, has to be a good thing, right? Surely getting addicted to a book series set in Roman times is better than Enid Blyton's Malory Towers, which held me in thrall aged eleven or so?

I'd love to be on the side of the Classics here, but it's all down to the story-telling. While I don't want to be making a case for Enid Blyton when there is much better literature around for kids, she was capable of telling a ripping yarn. My then-beloved Malory Towers saw their heroine through six years (and six books) in boarding school, and many adventures. Yet, historical fiction lover which I am, I wonder if I would have preferred The Man From Pomegranate Street, the final episode of the (wait-for-it) seventeen-volume Roman Mysteries series, which takes place between 79-81AD?

Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries ticks so many boxes for parents and educationalists that you can see why she has been lauded and applauded. In 2009, she won the Classics Association Prize for a a significant contribution to the public understanding of the Classics. The historical background of her novels appears well-researched, and I liked her use of real historical figures from the period, even down to Emperor Domitian's blind torturer, Messallinus. Scenes from Pomegranate Street (a real street in Ancient Rome where Domitian was born AD51) are enhanced with historical detail from the period, which may inspire readers to find out more. I enjoyed the maps, brief historical notes and Latin glossary. I didn't even find calling chapters scrolls annoying, though The Last Scroll followed by The Very Last Scroll Ever For This Series, bizarrely followed by Aristo's Scroll (the Latin dictionary) was pushing it a bit. The Man From Pomegranate Street is also a very attractive volume, with an appealing cover like others in the series, and the complete set of Roman Mysteries would look very handsome on a (long) bookshelf.

However, in terms of the quality of its plot and writing, I felt much of Pomegranate Street was tired, dull and unconvincing. The novel is told in flashback, with feisty heroine Flavia, one of the four ever-so-multicultural young Roman detectives, about to be married, and recalling her final adventure. This makes it difficult to make the novel truly tense, as we already know that she survives the threats she faces during the main body of the story. There is also a huge amount of action that happens off-stage, as it were, with various characters returning with a whole Greek drama's worth of epic events. The use of Latin terms and some suitably gruesome facts of Roman life keeps it readable, but the twists in the plot sometimes seemed forced and artificial, which is also reflected in the sketchy realisation of certain key characters, including Domitian.

Fans of the series will doubtless enjoy meeting the four young detectives again, but newcomers like me will probably struggle to maintain interest. This doesn't mean I'm suggesting that you start at the beginning with the first in the series, The Thieves of Ostia, as Lawrence suggests you do (both before the opening chapter and after the final one!). I would tentatively suggest borrowing the first novel from the library if you have a child interested in historical fiction, and if the series grabs them, they will gain both a smattering of Latin words and a glimpse into the Roman world. (The Malory Towers series would be cheaper, though, and more exciting, even if not nearly so Roman).

Thanks to Orion Books for sending The Man From Pomegranate Street to Bookbag. Caroline Lawrence has considerable ability as a researcher and has certainly spotted a gap in the market for children interested in this period.

For further reading, needless to say, if your child enjoys The Man From Pomegranate Street, there are sixteen other novels in the same series, as well as various spin-offs. Bookbag has reviewed both the first, The Thieves of Ostia, and the sixteenth, The Prophet from Ephesus. However, to enthral your child with the Classics by using fiction, I'd recommend anything by Rosemary Sutcliff (not yet reviewed by Bookbag, sadly). The Eagle of the Ninth is set in Roman Britain, and her interpretations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus, have much to offer an adult readership, too.

Young readers interested in a combination of ancient history and mystery will enjoy Orphan of the Sun by Gill Harvey, or if a series is required, consider Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. You might also enjoy Escape From Rome: The Roman Quests by Caroline Lawrence.

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