There is something rather classic feeling about Circus Maximus; Race to the Death,, I don’t know whether it’s the pedigree and cultural significance of the inspirations; the ancient setting that contributes; or something else but there is something special about the way Annelise Gray writes that has this epic ‘future classic’ embedded in every word.
Content warning; there is light depiction of historical slavery & associated social conventions, animal death and a scene of animal cruelty (very brief and absolutely treated as wrong)
Dido is the daughter of the Green’s Chariot racing trainer at the Circus Maximus and secretly dreams of being a charioteer herself, but as this is shut off to women, she must be content with helping, grooming and teaching the owner’s heir the rules of racing.
But after a suspicious event she witnesses her father murdered in cold blood and the Imperial Guard sent to chase her down, she flees by boat to Carthage where she finds a refuge and kindred spirit in an unlikely place, and in time her skill and ambition leads her back to certain danger in Rome.
Keep Dreaming Dido.
This is truly a book that could be enjoyed by any age, I would happily recommend and will no doubt buy for fellow adult readers, particular those of historical fiction, but this has a magic about it for the middle grade to early teen reader.
And anyone interested in books knows that despite recent efforts there is a gap there for the post 12 but rather shouldn’t be reading modern YA age range. This book with its universal appeal of female spirit, thundering action sequences and searching of the soul without any rude bits makes this particularly perfect for this age range to enjoy without the worry of a bonkbuster or too much violence.
I had reached the bank of the Tiber, where ships brought in supplies for the stables and other businesses in this quarter of the city. A row of ships was moored to the quayside, and men were traipsing on and off with crates and barrels.
And to appease the ‘is it challenging enough?’ parental concerns the educational value of the Ancient Roman setting gives this book extraordinary value in my eyes:
As a graduate of Ancient History with a specialism in Rome this book was so incredibly special to me. I can tell and appreciate the level of detail and research that has gone into this and the skill and care that has gone into the sleight of hand to include it without it coming across as a ‘chalk and talk’ lesson. Whilst it’s not a fictional account of a historical event, it certainly is a fictional event based in a historically sharp world.
From small reference to industries, architecture, and texture the Roman world is breathed into life with full sensory immersion, descriptions of real historical figures are accurate based on contemporaneous texts and little cheeky in-the-know naming choices bring a smile to the informed reader balanced against the passionate fiction of Dido, inspired by burial remains of Roman girls found clutching the tokens of their favourite chariot team.
It was late evening now and the city was alive with the party atmosphere that always gripped Rome on the eve of race days. Stable Street was crowded with revellers, tourists and street traders, mingling beneath the coloured flags of the factions.Green and blue supporters were confronting each other outside a tavern, exchanging insults and spoiling for a fight.
The action is centred almost exclusively around the Circus Maximus, the clubhouses of the chariot racing factions and the North African estate of Scorpus a former charioteer turned horse trainer. We are constantly emerged in this horsey sporty world and yet it never feels too much; Dido, her story and the stories embroidering around her are the fuelling force of this novel.
The phrase panem et circenses ‘Bread and Circuses’ might originate from a much later writing than our historical action is set but Juvenal’s biting Satires were a scathing indictment of how easily Romans were ‘bought’ by Emperors and comes to mind here as there are problems and tension in both Rome and the Empire but everyone seemingly is more focused on the outcome of their faction at the next chariot match at the Circus Maximus.
This may make modern parallels to tribalism in sports and make that gap between us and history just that step closer, a wonderful thing for children to feel that history is populated with people just like us but shaped by the trends and culture at the time.
It’s a dangerous game Dido…a man’s game. A girl just wouldn’t be strong enough to handle a team… Stick to grooming them, taking care of them and healing their wounds.
The story also revolves around identity and explores historical experience of being a girl and the challenges of gender as our protagonist is frustrated as a young girl Dido (named after the queen of Carthage and her Carthaginian roots) with a lion’s mane of blonde hair obsessed with the horses her father trains for the chariot races but she can never really fully step into his world and then out of necessity becomes Leon her boy alter ego with a bound chest and dark shorn curls to hide from Praetorian murderers yet has the freedom to ride in races and invest in her dreams.
I rather enjoyed the way it hits on the classic dressing resembling a boy trope to achieve aims in this case whilst maintaining and respecting the character’s core femininity as Velvet Brown did in National Velvet for horse riding, as Mulan did for Honour and for survival as Viola in Twelfth Night. Whilst Dido has dreams of riding in the Circus Maximus, avenging her father and will reach it as Leon, it is always riding as herself a girl that will ultimately fulfil her dreams.
Ok let’s be honest, you don’t have to be middle class and horsey to enjoy a good horsey book. (I am neither but am rather partial)
This isn’t a let’s go muck out the horses and plait their manes and glory at the gymkhana story (and yes there is always room for those books). This is an epic tale based in a horse and sport obsessed world, and whilst we become invested in the animals and the action it is because of Dido and her story that are always central meaning it doesn’t matter if you don’t know a fetlock from a flank or how to plait ribbons into a mane, YOU can read this story.
Which is why it reminds me of a book that despite the jokes and silliness it has garnered over the years has a special place in my heart. And that (blushes furiously) is Riders by Jilly Cooper- it wasn’t about the bonkbuster factor for me (I used to skip those pages if I’m honest) it was the stories of the characters, their ambitions, dreams and their relationships with their horses that entwined in my heart.
Which is why this book reminds me so much in a fantastic way of Riders without the naughty bits!
Dido reminds me of Fenella Maxwell- horsey, determined and whilst utterly respects Scorpus (Jake Lovell as I live and breathe!) she equally is unafraid of directly disobeying orders for horse riding showmanship.
Other characters have hints of characters and then the. horses themselves remind me. There are hints of the horse Sailor from Riders (cries) and Pie from National Velvet, Black Beauty, Sea Biscuit and many more across the cast of fictional horses and the real world faith in rehabilitation and care over ruthless win-or-die attitudes from others.
Honestly whether you are horsey or not read it, if you like history or not read it, this book has epic classic written all over its cinematic GLORY.
Circus Maximus; Race to the Death by Annalise Gray is published by Zephyr
Thank you to Fritha Lindquist and Zephyr for my copy.💜