Blog Tour: Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track

Written by  Annelise Gray
Cover Illustration by Levente Szabo
Published by Zephyr on 3rd February

I’m honoured to be part of the Blog Tour for this incredibly exciting adventure. Thank you to Fritha Lindqvist and Zephyr for inviting me to take part. Today, I will be sharing a Guest Post by Annelise about her Five Favourite Historical Novels for Children alongside my Review.

My 5 Favourite Historical Novels for Children by Annelise Gray

Growing up, I loved reading books set in the past. It felt like an adventure, to go places that were both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The best ones had characters you fell in love with and who stayed with you long after you turned the last page. When I’m writing the Circus Maximus series, I try to keep that balance in mind. I want you to feel as if you’re there with my main character Dido in ancient Rome, experiencing all the sights and tastes and smells of her world. But it’s also important to me that the books shouldn’t feel like a history lesson. Dido’s story – of a girl fighting against the odds to achieve her dream in a man’s world – is a universal one. It’s her spirit and her heart that I hope draw you in and make you want to keep reading.

The following five examples of historical fiction are all favourites of mine and I would recommend them to any reader, young or old.

The Eagle of the Ninth – Rosemary Sutcliff

Set in second century Britain, The Eagle of the Ninth tells the story of a Roman officer, Marcus Flavius Aquila, who learns that his father’s legion has mysteriously disappeared to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. Accompanied by his faithful slave, Esca, Marcus sets off on a dangerous journey to discover what has happened to his father and to try to recover the legion’s eagle standard. Sutcliff paints landscape through prose better than almost any writer I can think of and it’s an absolutely gripping read which, for me, sets the benchmark for all Roman historical fiction.

For the King – Ronald Welch

I don’t see people talking about this Carnegie Medal winning author much these days but I think they should because he’s such a skilled writer. For the King is one of his series about different generations of the Carey family. Set in the English Civil War, it centres on Neil Carey, who is reluctantly dragged into the conflict and finds himself on opposite sides to his cousin and best friend. Welch’s historical knowledge really shines off the page and it’s a beautifully written story about betrayal, honour, family, grief, loss and the pointlessness of war.

The Secret Countess – Eva Ibbotson

I love the lightness and gentle wit of this historical romance by the great Eva Ibbotson (first published as A Countess Below Stairs) about a young Russian aristocrat who flees to England during the Russian Revolution and becomes a housemaid. But the historical setting and period detail – from the costumes to the food – is also satisfyingly and exquisitely drawn. My literary equivalent of hot chocolate and buttered toast on a rainy night.

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Not strictly written for children, I know, but it’s a favourite of several of my Year 8 students and understandably so. The story’s narrator is Death and it follows the path taken by Liesel – the book thief of the title – who learns about the power of words from her kindly foster father while enduring the horrors of the Third Reich. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that left me more emotionally wrung-out and yet also uplifted. It also has one of the best last lines in any book ever.

The Skylarks’ War – Hilary McKay

This is quite simply one of the best novels that I’ve read in the last few years. I loved it so much that I gave it as a gift to any number of people, from my twelve-year-old goddaughter to a friend in her seventies. It’s such a tenderly drawn portrait of growing up, and the characters are all wonderful, from kind, clever Clarry – trying so hard to please her unaffectionate father – to Simon the Bony One, nursing his doomed love as the shadow of the First World War looms. I haven’t yet read the follow up, The Swallows’ Flight, but I am saving it as a treat.

My Review

Circus Maximus:  Rivals on the Track is the terrifically thrilling next adventure in the Circus Maximus series:  an epic adventure which hurtled me straight back into the exciting and dangerous world of chariot-racing and kept me utterly gripped as I was mesmerised by its young heroine’s courage and determination in the face of constant threat and rivalry. 

Dido and her beloved horse, Porcellus have left behind the Circus Maximus in Rome where she was the only girl ever to have been victorious in a race.  She is now living with her uncle, Scorpus and his family in Utica, North Africa where he trains charioteers and horses for the arena.  When Dido overhears a conversation at the market, she learns that a bounty has been put on her head by the Emperor Caligula who is determined to see her return to Rome.  Dido is equally determined that she will never race for him, but will she be able to keep her true identity from her pursuers and the Emperor?

When her uncle’s business comes under financial threat, Dido decides to disguise herself as the boy Leon, and race for prize money with Porcellus and her new one-eyed horse, Jewel, who she has rescued from being sent to the mines.  After arriving home from a race in Utica, she meets her uncle’s brother, Barca, who reveals that he wants them to join forces to race in the new circus in Thugga in order to save both their stables.  At first Scorpus refuses but, following a disaster at his stables and dangerous revelations after a visit from an old enemy, Scorpus has no choice other than to take his family to Thugga.

And so begins the most incredible, action-packed, perilous adventure as Dido fights to overcome her demons, as she uncovers family secrets, as she faces rivalry both on and off the track, and as she is hunted by a merciless enemy.  Will her decision to race again put her at risk of capture?  Can she overcome the dangers of the race to secure victory and honour for her family? 

This enthralling adventure gives such a rich insight into the heart-pounding danger and excitement of chariot racing with its zealous supporters, faction rivalries and the incredible courage and risks taken by its charioteers and their horses:  a real feast for the senses!  As well as the on-the-track action, I also really enjoyed the rivalries and friendships which built outside the track, especially the friendship and respect which develops between Dido and Danel. I was so moved by the struggle within Dido’s extended family as they slowly recover from having been torn apart by a painful past.  Secrets are revealed, old wounds are opened and healed, and sacrifices made that kept me just as fascinated and invested in the story as the excitement of the track.  

Central to this exceptional historical adventure is the story of a courageous, strong and resilient young girl who fights for her friends, for her family and for herself.  I really enjoyed the depth of Dido’s bond with Porcellus and Jewel which is heart-warmingly portrayed.  The horses are wonderful characters within the story and I loved how they interacted with each other and had such strong, individual personalities.  Jewel has to be a new favourite!

Circus Maximus:  Rivals on the Track is an exhilarating, action-packed historical adventure, brimming with palpable excitement, danger and revelations that made this a gripping, edge-of-your-seat, unputdownable adventure.  It is also a story of friendship, courage, resilience and family pain and healing.  I can’t wait for the next adventure in this series!

Please do check out the other posts on the Blog Tour:

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