Author Annelise Gray's absorbing historical adventure, Circus Maximus, continues in Rivals on the Track where we return to the world of the Ancient Roman Empire, chariot racing and a dangerous secret.
Annelise was born in Bermuda and moved to the UK as a child. She grew up riding horses and dreaming of becoming a writer. After gaining a PhD in Classics from Cambridge, she worked as a researcher for authors and TV companies on topics as varied as Helen of Troy, Russian princesses and the history of Labradors. She's previously published a history of the women of the Roman Empire, and a crime novel set in the Roman Republic. Annelise lives with her husband in Dorset, where she teaches Latin.
Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track (Zephyr)
Travel back to life in the Roman Empire; a time when Caligula rules and chariots race at the empire's famous Coliseums. 12-year-old Dido becomes a champion charioteer, only to see her dreams ripped away as her enemies close in in Rivals on the Track, the second absorbing historical adventure from Annelise Gray. Circus Maximus is a riveting read that brings to life the world of Ancient Rome.
Download a chapter from Circus Maximus: Race to the Death
Download a chapter from Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track
Author Annelise Gray, ReadingZone's Teen Author of the Month, tells us more about Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track!
Q&A with Annelise Gray
1. Can you tell us about your two Circus Maximus books?
The Circus Maximus books are about the adventures of a young girl called Dido who dreams of becoming the first girl to race chariots at the Circus Maximus, the greatest sporting stadium in the ancient world. In book one - Race to the Death - Dido finds herself being hunted by the man who has killed her father, a great racehorse trainer, and having to decide who she should trust, and who she should fear in her bid to prove herself a worthy competitor on the track.
We also meet her beloved horse Porcellus, a tempestuous stallion who she is forced to abandon when she first goes into hiding, but who she is determined to rescue from the clutches of his wicked and cruel new owner, the emperor Caligula.
In Book Two, Rivals on the Track, we find Dido in peril once more, under direct threat this time from Caligula himself, who has offered money for the capture of the notorious ‘girl charioteer'. She has found a new home with her mother's family in north Africa and has rescued a one-eyed horse called Jewel, a mare with a heart as brave as her own.
But when Dido sees a chance to help her uncle, who's in financial trouble, she had to decide whether to risk everything to return to racing. Will the discovery of a shocking family secret stop her in her tracks? Or will it spur her on to bid for sporting glory again?
2. Why did you decide to write a book set in Ancient Rome? And why did you choose to set it during Caligula's reign as emperor?
As soon as I had the idea for my main character of Dido (see question 4) the matter of where the book was going to be set was settled. When I was doing the research for Dido's story, it became obvious that Caligula's reign would not just be a good period to set the story, he would also make a great villain. This is thanks in part to his well-documented obsession with chariot racing and the lengths he was prepared to go to ensure his favourite team - the Greens - won.
3. Why did you decide to focus on chariot racing? Have you ever been involved in horse racing yourself?
Riding was pretty much my whole life outside of school until I was about 15. There were stables near our house in Bermuda where I grew up and later on, when we moved to England, I was very lucky to have a horse of my own. But I was always a very slow and steady kind of rider - not a girl racer at all. That's what I love about writing Dido - she's the adrenaline junkie I've always wished I could be.
4. What made you think about creating a female charioteer - did any woman ever succeed, like Dido does, in real life?
The character of Dido popped into my head when I was watching a Formula One motor race one day. I love the sport but have always longed for a female driver to break through at that level. I found myself thinking that it would be fun if there was a female Lewis Hamilton, but living in ancient Rome, dreaming of being a charioteer.
There's no evidence that female charioteers ever raced at the Circus Maximus, although we know that women attended the games as spectators and there were female gladiators who occasionally fought at the Colosseum.
5. How well did you know the period before you started, and what research did you need to do for the book?
I have a PhD in Classics and have worked as a Classics teacher for over 15 years. But I knew next to nothing about chariot-racing when I started writing Race to the Death (other than from watching the famous race in the movie Ben-Hur).
I have been to the site of the Circus Maximus in Rome - which I highly recommend for a visit - but most of my research gets done in London libraries. I draw on different sources - for example, accounts by Roman writers which give us a taste of what it was like to be in the crowd watching a race and the fanatical behaviour of some of the supporters.
There are also images from ancient art that give us a good idea of how the chariots were designed and what the charioteers wore. And we have inscriptions which tell us the names and colours of the horses and the career statistics of the best drivers.
One of my absolute favourite morsels of evidence was reading about a chariot games token that was found in the grave of a young girl. It's such a powerful image - the idea that maybe this girl loved watching the races and her family buried it with her as a keepsake of a happy day. I really held that in my mind when I was writing the book.
6. Your writing brings Ancient Rome to life, how did you set out to do this?
My favourite work of historical fiction about ancient Rome is The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. As well as being a riveting adventure story, I love the way she brings the bleak landscape of Roman Britain to life but in a way that never feels like she's borrowing on cliched tropes about the ancient world.
That was my aspiration with Circus Maximus - I don't want the reader to feel like they're having a history lesson, but the research should help immerse them in the period, so that they feel like they are right there beside the characters, tasting the same food, smelling the same scents in the air.
7. If you could step back in time into Ancient Rome, where would you go? Who would you want to meet?
That's easy - the Circus Maximus of course. It would be amazing to sit in the stands along with the roaring voices of all those spectators (it's said you could fit around a quarter of a million of them in there) and watch a day of races.
If I was going to meet someone from Roman history, then oddly enough I think it might be Emperor Caligula. I wouldn't want to be in his company for too long and I'd like to have an escape hatch if necessary. But in painting him as such a terrifying villain in the Circus Maximus books, I'm aware I've borrowed from the descriptions of him by the most savage of his ancient critics. It would be interesting to see whether he is quite as awful as Roman historians make him out to be.
8. Are there other areas of the Ancient world that you might write about?
I would definitely like to write more books set in the ancient world after Circus Maximus. I worry about jinxing projects by talking about them, so I can't really say much here. But, in part inspired by The Eagle of the Ninth, I'd love to write something set in Roman Britain. The research would be enormous fun.
9. What are you writing currently, and what keeps you at your desk?
I am currently hard at work on book 3 in the Circus Maximus series, which will continue Dido's adventures.
My desk is a bit of a moveable feast in that I can suddenly decide after a few weeks that I'm not feeling inspired writing in my own study which is technically where my 'desk' is. The disadvantage of working from home of course is that you can easily procrastinate by deciding that the laundry really has to be done right this minute, or staring hopefully at the contents of the fridge. So if I'm conscious I'm not really getting much done, I might decamp to the library at the school where I work, or go to a local café. I have a pair of big noise-cancelling headphones and I really like listening to music while I write - epic movie soundtracks are good for the chariot-racing scenes (especially the one for Gladiator).
10. And what are your favourite escapes from your desk?
I adore eating and cooking and have a huge and ever-expanding collection of cookbooks which I browse through every day, looking for new recipes to try. I find it very therapeutic, both cooking for pleasure and just thinking about what I want to make next. Otherwise, I love a big walk and am lucky to live surrounded by beautiful countryside. As a former islander though, I also long for the sea sometimes. Last year my husband and I spent a week on the Isle of Mull and I paddle-boarded every day on the beach next to our holiday house. It was a magical escape.
11. Do you read much historical fiction for children? What are your three top recommendations?
I love historical fiction - both for children and adults - and my favourite examples of it balance vivid world-building with well-drawn characters. I'd recommend the following for young readers:
1. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
My only criticism of this novel is that there aren't enough wolves in it. Otherwise, it's the most fantastic romp, set in an alternative historical version of England in the 19th century. Two cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia, have to thwart the designs of their wicked governess, Miss Slighcarp, surely the beset name for a villain ever conceived. Huge fun and those wolves - when they appear - are pleasingly scary.
2. The Skylarks' War by Hilary McKay
I bang on about the beauty of this book to anyone who will listen and have given it as a gift to friends and relatives of various ages. Brother and sister Peter and Clarry and their charismatic cousin Rupert enjoy the last halcyon days of summer before the First World War breaks out, casting a terrible shadow over their young lives. I haven't yet read the sequel, The Swallows' Flight, but I'm saving it up as a treat.
3. The Secret of the Treasure Keepers by AM Howell
You'll have to wait for this one as it's not out until the end of March but I was lucky enough to get sent a proof copy. It's set just after the end of WWII and it's an archaeological dig mystery, which is just as fabulous as it sounds. Twelve-year-old Ruth intercepts a mysterious phone call made to an office at the British Museum and finds herself being whisked off by her mother to lonely Rook Farm to investigate a report of long-lost treasure.