Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track – Annelise Gray with Guest Feature by Annelise Gray

Circus Maximus Rivals On The Track Annelise Grey

Last year I wrote enthusiastically about the first book in this series Race to The Death partially for its keen historical observation, and by this education by stealth; but equally so for its storycraft, total immersion in Dido’s world that evokes the greatest stories of literature, those that pull us in and care from the opening pages making it a tale perfect for all ages, but especially engaging for that age between middle grade and YA that is often looked over in the misconception they are more focused on socialising, homework and reading ‘up’ to YA and 19th/20th century classics instead of needing their own stories.

I was delighted to see Dido and her alter ego Leon return in Rivals on the Track revisiting the themes of classic children’s Horse books such as Velvet Brown’s disguise in National Velvet, but equally evokes the high octane environment, toxic competitiveness and discrimination inside the horse world explored in Jilly Cooper’s Riders but thankfully without the rude bits!! 

And even more so because Annelise herself is guesting in this post telling us of her Five Favourite Fictional Horse-Mad Heroines!! 

Content Warning: PTSD flashbacks, fire, knives, chariot crashes, horse death on page, unconscious child, alcohol and drunken adult, catcalling and similar behaviour at girls and young women, references to gambling, historically accurate depiction of Roman slavery (always with critical eye) in construction and industries.

Circus Maximus Rivals On The Track Annelise Grey
Cover art by Stephen McNally

It’s a few months since Dido and her chariot racing family escaped Rome with the Emperor’s horse Porcellus, who thanks to wanted posters scattered across the Empire can only graze at night. But it turns out Dido isn’t the only one with a secret when Scorpus’ brother comes asking him to return and help the family stables, revealing that her grandfather is actually still alive.

But the request for Leon Of Utica and his ‘brothers’ to join the new chariot competition in Thugga is complicated. Princess Sophinisba’s  slight of Caligula’s offer to be his new ‘pet’ at the Circus Maximus has enraged the Emperor to put a price on her head meaning Dido has reason to be scared to even race as Leon, but more so with the traumatic memories of her last race as him shaking her nerve.

However she finds she is even more scared of letting her last chance to be a chariot racer to slip by. 

We need your help Scorpus, and we need your sons. Bring them, bring your best horses too and help restore our family’s fortune before Papa dies and it’s too late.

Barca pleads Scorpus to come home and join forces with his father to compete in the Glabrio Games at Thugga.
Whilst Race to The Death dealt with identity, ambition, the rehabilitation of horses and the experience of the historical feminine as Dido finds the courage to disguise herself as Leon, Rivals on the Track takes this further into the rehabilitation of people; the internal and historical traumas we carry; and relationships; and focuses on the ability within us all to change our stars and decide or affirm who we can or will be even if for just a snatch of time. 

it was as if I was a child, waking from sleep to discover myself in unfamiliar and frightening surroundings…my heart was still fluttering strangely around my chest like a bird trapped in a cage…arms and legs feel heavy and numb…buzzing sound in my ears…I couldn’t breathe…temples throbbing…for a moment it was if I was back at the Circus…felt my heart pound .the image of Icarus’ death repeating in my head

A snapshot of Dido’s PTSD in the first part of the book.

As someone who has battled with complex PTSD I feel Annelise deals beautifully and with gentleness and honour with the concept of traumatic memories and PTSD as Dido struggles with the memories of her last race as Leon which culminated in a crash or shipwreck caused by the Greens, Parmenion getting hurt saving her life and of course the death of her beloved Icarus. Her guilt when she sees Parmenion descend into alcoholism to cope with his injuries and likely end of his career is exacerbated whenever she holds the chariot reins by the fear of losing another horse like she did Icarus. 

The honour and respect given to the trauma of such crashes and injuries is touched upon as Dido finds a quiet community of ‘seasick’ charioteers, not only in the recognition of PTSD as a timeless human phenomenon rather than some 20th century discovery post ‘shellshock’ in WWI but the reality of how each racer deals with it in their own way, some positive, others not so.

What is even better is that Grey doesn’t pretend that Dido is ‘fixed’ when she has a breakthrough, but instead that she builds resilience and coping mechanisms and still wobbles but feels the fear and keeps going even if as she realises with painful recognition that chariot racing will be for only a short moment more in her life. 

And that’s when it dawned on me. I was almost fifteen, the same age as my mother when she ran away…and I had no idea what my future held. For most girls, I knew there was only one choice. Get married and start a family. I didn’t feel ready for either of those things…but I also knew that before long I might not be able to pass as a boy…What then?

Dido reflects on the consequences of her reluctance to become Leon again

As equally Dido is aching with the fear of regret, of time slipping by and the increasing observations through Anna and Ismene’s lives and how they aren’t so different from Dido in their dreams, memories, but perhaps so in regret and through others’ recollections about her mother she realises the way girls’ ‘lives’ basically end in this time when they become women.

This is made more urgent by the fact she is rapidly developing and no longer a child, almost the same age as Sophinisba when she became her mother. This is her last chance, she must decide if she will, and can take it or live forever thinking what may have been. She may not be able to flip the hourglass, but she can run her fingers through the sands of the Circus for one last chance.

I would love to see more of Dido, even if its revisiting her in future years in a YA book or through the lens of a new child learning of her legend and seeking her out.

It’s not enough to want to win because you’re up against the top charioteers at the Circus Maximus. Great champions want to win no matter how small the stakes, no matter who the opposition is…you have to know what you’re prepared to sacrifice to get there.

There will always be other charioteers coming up behind you, wanting to beat you, wanting to shipwreck you if that’s what it takes. Are you prepared to accept the risk and the pain as well as the glory? Is it enough for you to be remembered as a good charioteer? Or do you need to be remembered as the greatest?

Muttumbaal challenges Leon’s fear

Alongside the favourites of Scorpus’ stables returning, we also are introduced to the wider family and historic conflict between both Scorpus and his father, and indeed between Muttumbaal’s family and of his ex friend Zeno, and how Dido’s mother is central to that all. 

Muttumbaal is a fascinating character, whilst her relationship with Scorpus feels like Jake Lovell and Fen Maxwell, quietly paternal but with strong determination and a dash of wilful disobedience, Muttumbaal reminds me more like a vexed old master like Master Shifu in Kung Fu Panda with a dash of Mickey the boxing trainer in Rocky: still fiercely talented, critical and brutally honest but that’s because they want to bring out the best, no excuses. The journey we take with him across this novel is bittersweet in his stoic quietness, undeniable talent and the inferno of regret that rages within. 

Whilst Zeno’s son Amandio offers a Nicias style antagonist with his bullying of Bodo, it is his older brother Danel that offers a far more interesting character, not for his self-belief which is based on pure talent and hard work not narcissism, money nor ego. No, he is far more interesting for this calm ambition to be the best, to listen, learn and be gracious win or lose and if win its by fairness. He is not a fame chaser, he simply wants to be the best for himself, something that Dido feels herself but struggles to reconcile it in another after experiencing so many swaggering mouthy chariot racers. 

I thought he was like a god, when I was a boy…everyone wanted their horses trained by him. he was a brilliant charioteer too: he had a great career at the Circus Maximus. But it wasn’t a good father. I sometimes worry I’m turning into him.

Scorpus reflects to Dido of his feelings about his father after Barca’s plea.

Fathers and parenting is also a key topic explored across the book with the legacy of poor parenting by Muttumbaal and also Zeno being felt across the generations, but underlines the opportunity to reframe, rebuild and change being within everyone’s grasp. Scorpus reflecting on his relationship with his father whilst wrongly fearing he has turned out just like him as he sees his own sibling rivalry repeat in his sons, and Barca learning he must have room for kindness and support as much as mentoring and training with Bodo. Ismene’s pain at her own banishment and not knowing her half-brothers, the younger of which bullies her own similar aged son. And indeed Dido’s own keen sense of loss for her Antonius who was a brilliant father and also the growing sense of what was lost and far more widely when her mother was disowned by her father. 

Annelise touches on the power and pull of Family and the choices, sacrifices, forgiveness and compromise required to be a community and unit rather than simply individuals linked by genes is explored and even the idea of how we make our own family as Ismene chooses her husband’s family over her father, and further how Anna, Antigonus and Parmenion are as much part of this whole and beloved even if they aren’t actually related to Scorpus. 

Green was spreading across the landscape around Utica, like an emerald wave rippling against a grey shore. they were planting the spring wheat in the fields and the smell of freshly dug soil mingled with the salt tang of the distant sea.

Grey lusciously sets the scene of a hot spring day whilst telling us of the seasonal economy and landscape of Utica.

One of my favourite parts of this novel comes back to the historical research and immersion in time and place and the stealthy education throughout. As an Ancient History graduate with focus on Ancient Rome and preference for social/underepresented history, it was a delight to see our setting fully switched to Carthage. The first novel is a feast of historical fact about Rome itself, and whilst the city of Utica and Scorpus’ farm is detailed, in that book it’s Rome that shines.

Rivals on the Track however settles our narrative within the Roman province of Proconsularis/Carthage with the action moving to Thugga (modern day Dougga) and touching upon the similarities and differences between Rome and its provinces. Here the people are straddled between the province’s extreme wealth, widespread peaceful adoption of Roman culture and sports such as the circus and Roman fashions and aspirations even shown in the terra sigillata/Samian dinnerware which Scorpus’s family uses (I suggest this as its a tad early in the 1st century and out of character for Scorpus to have switched to African red slipware what would you say Annelise?) and against the undeniable difference of landscape and the residual heritage and culture of Berber ancestors which to be fair was surprisingly well tolerated and accepted by Roman citizenry compared to other Provinces.

With a quiet slipstream of fantastic knowledge and observation its a heady but not heavy educational and thrilling experience to read as we are stirred by sensory immersion in Grey’s story craft. You can feel the heat and dust and smell the pomegranates on the breeze as much as hear the roar of the crowd and see the spectacle of the stadium and I unashamedly love it.

Now I hand over to Annelise herself, who is going to tell us about her top Five fictional Horse mad heroines!! 

My 5 Favourite Fictional Horse-Mad Heroines

There is a bookshelf at my parents’ house where the the horse and pony stories I devoured as a child live in peaceful, dog-eared retirement. I have rescued some of them in recent years and now they live on the shelf above my writing desk, a reminder of how the seeds of inspiration for my Circus Maximus books were first planted. Here are some of my favourite horse-mad characters from those novels and other works of fiction:

1.Velvet Brown – National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

I have spoken often of how Dido’s story is my love letter to National Velvet, my favourite book as a child. Fourteen-year-old Velvet Brown wins a horse in a raffle and dreams of training and entering him for the Grand National, where female jockeys aren’t allowed to compete. Part of what I love about the book is the relationship between idealistic, brace-wearing Velvet and her stoic mother Araminty, who lends Velvet the entry money for the National from the winnings she earned as one of the first women to swim the English Channel. A gorgeous story about the power of ordinary women and girls to do great things.

2. Jill Crewe – The Jill books by Ruby Ferguson

I adored this series when I was growing up. It begins with Jill’s Gymkhana, in which a lonely girl called Jill scrapes together the money to buy a neglected pony and learns to ride him with the help of a disabled RAF veteran. Jill is such a brilliant, self-deprecating character and what I love about the books is how funny they are – there’s an incredibly entertaining supporting cast including Jill’s soppy cousin Cecilia, her wealthy arch-rival Susan Pyke and an energetic set of triplets memorably named April, May and June Cholly-Sawcutt.

3. Noel Kettering – Six Ponies, by Josephine Pullein-Thompson

The Pullein-Thompson sisters – Diana, Josephine and Christine – are the undisputed queens of equestrian fiction. I had a lot of their books in my childhood collection but this one – by Josephine – stands out in the memory. Six young Pony Club members are entrusted with the job of breaking in six New Forest ponies, with a competition at the end for the best-trained mount. One sincerely hopes children wouldn’t be so recklessly entrusted with such a responsibility these days. But I loved scatty, shy Noel, because although she’s written off by the other children as a ‘drip’, she’s actually the one with the patience and sympathy for the job and ultimately succeeds where the others fail.

4.Christina Parsons – Flambards by K.M. Peyton.

A few months ago, I saw some authors on Twitter reminiscing about horsey books they had loved as children and speaking with particular fondness about the Flambards series. Wondering why I had never come across it, I went and borrowed the first book from the library at the school where I teach. Two weeks later, I had devoured it, along with the sequels, The Edge of the Cloud and Flambards in Summer. Twelve-year-old Christina is sent to live with her miserly uncle on his grand country estate, Flambards, in the expectation she will one day marry her selfish, brutal cousin Mark. This is a different book from the others on the list – it’s more historical fiction than horsey fiction although Christina does discover a talent for riding and a love for horses at Flambards. But I can’t recommend it enough – it’s so beautifully written and you see spoiled but well-intentioned Christina develop and grow as a character across all the books.

5. Fenella Maxwell – Riders by Jilly Cooper

I have to stipulate very firmly, before anyone thinks of going to buy this book for their ten- year-old daughter, that Jilly Cooper’s Riders is most definitely NOT suitable for children. But I cannot leave Fen Maxwell out of this list, particularly when you – {that’s me!!} – spotted the parallels between her and Dido in your review of Circus Maximus: Race to the Death! Gutsy, loyal, obsessed with horses, we meet her as a scrappy nine-year-old in the first chapter of the book and watch her grow up into a troubled but talented showjumper who represents GB at the Olympics. I didn’t realise how much the relationship between Fen and her trainer Jake Lovell had inspired the one between Dido and Scorpus until you pointed it out! But you were absolutely spot on.

Thank you so much Annelise, I’m honoured that you shared this list with me and especially that I helped you discover the inspiration behind Dido and Scorpus through our guilty pleasure of Riders- which I agree is totally not a childrens book and Fen is absolutely twinned with Dido for my favourite horse-mad heroines of all time!  

I throughly and completely recommend Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track and indeed the previous title Race to the Death even if you aren’t usually drawn to ‘horsey’ books, this has a reverence and love for horses, but is ultimately a tale of heart, courage and ambition wrapped up in equestrian sports and a gorgeous immersion in history that sweeps you away. Seriously though, this needs a film deal. 

Make sure to check out the other stops on the tour!

Circus Maximus Rivals On The Track Annelise Grey

Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track by Annelise Grey is published by Zephyr 

thank you so much for my copy 💜

3 thoughts on “Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track – Annelise Gray with Guest Feature by Annelise Gray

  1. Annelise has confirmed at least one more book in the series, assuming you haven’t seen that! I asked on twitter cause I’m nosy and she was nice enough to tell me 😂. Really loved reading your review of this xx

    Liked by 1 person

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