19 March 2011


Locus Focus: Take Forty-Five

New to Locus Focus?
Read this first!

(And remember that next Saturday is Middle Earth Day!)

You might have noticed that this blog isn't a place for commentary on what's going on the world. For one thing, I'm more likely to nurse a fascination over a long period of time than to blog about it immediately. For another, I don't want to take myself so seriously that one selling point for this blog becomes my "unique" analysis of current events. But there are times when something in the Real World (for yes, it is the real world) grabs me so firmly that its marks show up in my leisure reading and blogging.

Watching the news footage of a devastated Japan and reading the daily updates of tragic lows and tearful highs moved me in many ways, the most important of which has little to do with this blog. The most trivial way, on the other hand, has inspired this post.

The Refugee Camp
The Pirates of Pompeii
(Roman Mysteries #3)
by Caroline Lawrence

The sun, enormous and bloodred, began to sink into the sea. Its dying rays lit the ash-covered mountains and cove, so that the whole landscape seemed to be bathed in blood. The sky above it was livid purple, the colour of an angry bruise. There would be no stars that night.

In the camp, people moaned and wailed at the evil omen of a bloodred world. Some believed that Apollo, the sun god, was dying and that he would never rise again. Others were convinced that the end of the world was days away, or maybe only hours. They cried out to their gods, they tore their clothes, and they sprinkled ash on their heads.

But among the wails of despair were shouts of joy . . . "Julia! . . . My baby!"

Thanks to the international media, we don't have to have lived through a natural disaster to know what a refugee camp looks like. After a week of watching the rescue and aid efforts in Japan on the news, this first-century setting doesn't seem too long ago or too far away.

In the previous novel of the fantastic Roman Mysteries series, our four young detectives--freeborn Roman girl Flavia, her African slave Nubia, their Jewish neighbour Jonathan, and their tongueless friend Lupus--barely escape the wrath of the volcano. They follow the coastal road to the south, their torches barely piercing the darkness, damp napkins over their mouths and noses to keep them from inhaling ash and cushions on their heads to protect them from flaming pumice stones falling from the sky. They are exhausted when they finally arrive at a makeshift camp near Stabia, chosen by the other stunned survivors because it is where the air is clearest and there is some clean running water.

When this third novel opens a few days after their arrival, they remain in a pathetic state. One is lying in a coma in a tent made from an old ship's sail; two are combing the ash-covered hills for the Neapolitan cyclamen, called amulet, which might cure him; and the fourth has wandered down to a funeral pyre by the beach, where other survivors are mourning a dead man whose body washed up on shore, to spend some of his own grief at having been helpless to rescue his own friends. They have all known grief, fear, despair and desperation . . . but the worst of it is over, and now they are starting to remember hope.

The camp has formed around a public bath, and its owner has allowed a doctor to convert the palaestra into a hospital and the solarium into an operating room. He might charge money for the use of the baths, but he is generous with drinking water--which is fizzy and full of minerals. The children's favourite is the iron water because it turns their tongues red; they don't much care for the sulfur and magnesium waters.

One night, when their hearts are lighter, Nubia takes up her flute, their tutor Aristo tunes his lyre, and Lupus improvises a drum from a wooden bowl, and they make some music. The sound carries out of the tent, gathering a crowd that has been hungry for more than food and thirsty for more than water. The amateur musicians are stunned when these temporary neighbours, who barely have enough money for bread, gratefully toss coins at the entrance of their tent.

It is a sign that everyone has started to mend. The friends put on concerts every night . . . and soon the collective mood is so light that the good-looking Aristo finds he has squealing groupies among the camp's young women.

But human nature at its best is never far from human nature at its worst. The bath owner's generosity with water just manages to eclipse what greedier peasants are charging the refugees for food. And while our heroes see strangers in need and try to help them, others see strangers in confusion and take vicious advantage. In the bewildering aftermath, someone has started kidnapping the children of the camp. It is another mystery for our four detectives, who wouldn't let something as trivial as volcanic eruption stop them from solving a case!

Image Source: The Pirates of Pompeii by Caroline Lawrence


Sullivan McPig said...

Hmmm... this sounds interesting. Where do you keep finding these series

Enbrethiliel said...


I do a lot of browsing in the "children's" section of bookstores. ;-)

I was attracted to this series because I took some Latin in uni and really, really loved it. And my current opinion of these books is that the only way they could be better is if they were written in Latin as well. =P There are so many rich details in the stories--the kind you'd have to be a Classics scholar to know about. Lawrence always impresses me. =)

If you can find copies of these, I definitely recommend that you give them a try, Sully!

Paul Stilwell said...

That sounds like dark material for a "children's" book (or I should say somber), and an intense setting for mystery solving.

Will I be here for a Middle-earth setting next week? Who knows!

Enbrethiliel said...


That might be why the children are whisked away in the middle of the novel to a wealthy patron's villa! =P

Right now I'm drafting a review of a Horror movie that lots of fans say they loved as children. It's strangely age-appropriate, and because of that, it's scary elements skate by on a certain level of innocence. The Roman Mysteries series does something similar, playing down the more disturbing aspects of the age in which the character lived, but not obscuring them for the more mature readers who are presumably better equipped to handle them.