The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence

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The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: The Thieves of Ostia is really not worth all the hype attending it. It's a perfectly acceptable piece of genre fiction for children, but is no more than that. Think Cadfael for kids and you're about there. Those interested in really good historical fiction for children should look at someone like Geoffrey Trease instead..
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 208 Date: April 2002
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
ISBN: 1842550209

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The year is 79AD. The place is Ostia, the port of Rome. Flavia Gemina, a Roman sea captain's daughter, is about to embark on a thrilling adventure...

... so says the jacket.

Recently upbraided by a Bookbag reader for sins of omission, including missing reviews of books by Caroline Lawrence, I decided to get stuck in. The Thieves Of Ostia is Lawrence's first book, one of a planned series of 20, apparently. A planned series of twenty? How does one know that one's going to write twenty books about the same character before the first has even hit the book shops? It all sounds very mercenary to me, very book-as-product-sod-inspiration-or-literary-ambition. I was put off before I even began. However, the Roman Mysteries are very popular. Parents recommend them. Teachers approve of them. Children read them voraciously. Perhaps I'm just a snob.

Someone is killing the dogs of Ostia and stealing their heads. Could it be Avitus, the sailor whose daughter died after being bitten by a rabid dog while he was at sea? What does it have to do with the slave trader, Venelicius? Or with Caudius, one of the wealthiest merchants in Ostia? Flavia Gemina and her friends Jonathan, Nubia and Lupus, are determined to find out. Their investigation takes them to the forum, to the taverns, to the harbour, even to the tombs of the dead. Before they solve the mystery, they get into some hair-raising scrapes.

Flavia Gemina is A Nice Girl. She's well-meaning, intelligent and self-confident and she always learns from her mistakes. She's the archetypal spunky heroine from a solid, middle class home of the kind that one finds in many children's books. All the characters are like this: Jonathan's the quiet, determined one, Lupus is the wild boy with a good heart, Nubia is the intuitive one. The baddies are cartoon baddies. Everybody else talks with a plum in their mouths. Lawrence's action is pacy and rather exciting. Her sentences are well-structured without too many cringing anachronisms. There are a couple of red herrings to keep the little ones guessing. Everything turns out well in the end.

This isn't great, educational, vivid historical fiction for children. It's a shameless pitch for a mass market in which books for children and children reading Are Good Things. It preys upon the magpie instinct of all children. Children like to collect. They like "sets". The series of twenty books Lawrence promises isn't a great vision of hers; it's a mercenary scheme to persuade parents to buy their children twenty identical books. Just to bang home the educational "value" of the series, chapters aren't chapters, they're "scrolls" and there's a glossary at the back, explaining some Roman terms. Forget trying to write well enough for your context to explain your specifics, just put a glossary at the back and give it a precious title such as "Aristo's Scroll". Bah.

Of course, there's nothing new in this. Adult fans of genre fiction buy identical books all the time. Enid Blyton made a career out of writing identical books for children. How many Hardy Boys volumes were there? I don't say there's anything wrong in it - bubblegum fiction is better than no fiction. The Thieves Of Ostia is simply a mildly entertaining, light piece of bubblegum fiction. It's perfectly pleasant, if a little twee for my tastes, but quite acceptable all the same. Just don't even begin to imagine that it has any real worth educationally, or presents any real challenge, or will inspire your children to have any kind of real understanding of the effect really good writing can have upon the soul. The Roman Mysteries are simply the Secret Seven in togas. Think of the difference between Cadfael and The Name Of The Rose, and you're on the right track.

If you'd like your children to become alive to the joy and challenge offered by really good historical fiction for young people, investigate Geoffrey Trease or Henry Treece. Wonderful retellings of myth and legend are on offer from Roger Lancelyn Green. Don't buy twenty Roman Mysteries; keep those for library borrowings - transient pieces of light entertainment they may be, but they're really not worth return reading. They'll certainly be bored of them by secondary school.

If your child likes mysteries and history, a far better book is Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time.

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Buy The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence at


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Magda said:

The 'bubblegum fiction' term is what I needed desperately for the Rainbow Magic series!

...and of course the heroine, as described in the review, would be the greatest anachronism of all.

angelylan said:

Why are you being so mean? I know you're supposed to let people know how you think of it, but I personally think you're just being a big snob. As you said so yourself. I think it's a good book, I've learned alot from it, and Aristo's scroll? It's handy that it's all just put together for us on two pages, and that's a good thing right? Geez, who cares she says she wants to write 20 books? I don't care, I just take it as it comes. And the fact that alot of teachers approve would say enough wouldn't it? I think teachers know alot more than yourself. So back off, and don't be so harsh.

Jill replied:

I'm afraid I think I was kinder about the book than it deserved. I think you, and every other child, deserve better. Sorry!