Annelise Gray has penned a pulse-pounding middle grade historical-adventure set in the Circus Maximus, the greatest sporting stage of the ancient Roman world. This is where the best horses and charioteers compete in a race to the death, and one girl dreams of glory. Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is about a girl trying to find a foothold in a world dominated by men. It’s about revenge and redemption, survival and hope, and finding the courage to follow your dreams. Fellow children’s author Gillian Cross calls it “heart-stoppingly exciting”!
Annelise answers an exclusive Q&A for my blog in which she shares her inspirations for Circus Maximus: Race to the Death and what she hopes readers will take away from it.
1. There hasn’t been a lot of children’s fiction written about ancient Rome. What inspired you to write this book?
My inspiration came from the horse and pony adventure stories I loved as a kid. My favourite was Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, which is about a girl called Velvet Brown who wins a horse in a raffle and dreams of riding him to victory at the Grand National. Much to my regret, no female jockey has yet done that in real life. A few years ago, I was watching a Formula One motor race, feeling annoyed about the fact that there are no women drivers in that either, when suddenly my main character, Dido, popped into my head. I started imagining a brave, scrappy girl, a bit like Velvet but living in ancient Rome and hoping to race to break into the all-male world of chariot racing. I’d already written a couple of books about Rome for adult readers (fiction and non-fiction) but it was only when I saw Dido in my head that I realised that what I’d really wanted to do all along was be a children’s author. It just took me a bit of time to work it out.
2. Your story is packed with incredible description of all of the wondrous sights and sounds of ancient Rome as well as the thrilling chariot races. What kind of research did you do to make sure you described the time period accurately?
I have a PhD in Classics and I used to work as a research assistant to authors and TV companies on books and dramas about the ancient world. But I knew next to nothing about chariot-racing when I started writing Race to the Death, although I had been to the site of the Circus Maximus in Rome. So my first port of call was the library – not exactly Indiana Jones but that’s where the treasure is buried. I drew on a wide range of sources to create as authentic a portrait as possible, including 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. (One of the latter was the Emperor Caligula, who features as a character in my book and really was an obsessive fan of the Green racing faction, as I describe him). Images from ancient art give us our best idea of how the chariots were designed and what the charioteers wore, while we also 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.
3.Dido is such a strong, daring female character who dreams of being the first girl to race chariots in the grand stadium of Circus Maximus. What made you choose her as your main character?
I don’t know if I chose Dido so much as she popped into my head and then refused to leave. There was never any story without her. Growing up, I always loved books with brave, clever girls at their heart, like Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables or Jo March in Little Women. They had a huge impact on me and I’m sure they inspired the image of Dido that I had from early on. Someone described her to me the other day as a feminist who has no idea she is one and I think that’s right. It seems mad to her that she isn’t allowed to race horses when she’s proved she’s so good at it.
4.Dido is a bit of a Roman horse whisperer. Do you have any personal experience with horses?
Yes, I was lucky enough to grow up around them. We lived in Bermuda until I was eight, and there was a stable just down the road from our house. I think my mother had really wanted to have a pony of her own when she was a little so she compensated by getting my brother and I to have riding lessons. We used to take the horses out onto the beach in the early morning, which was a magical experience. When we came to England, we quickly learned – to our embarrassment – that people here did not cancel riding lessons just because it happened to be raining. But we joined the local branch of the Pony Club anyway and that became pretty much the focus of my life outside school until I was about fourteen. I’ve hardly ridden since but I can’t go past a field with horses in it without stopping to say hello.
5.What messages are you hoping to communicate to your readers through this story?
Take your passion and make it happen! Dido faces a lot of obstacles from people who let their prejudice blind them to what a girl can do, sometimes despite the evidence of their own eyes. But she’s brave and honest and she fights hard to be true to herself. And that’s the ultimate message of the book.
6.This is such an exciting historical adventure! Will there be a sequel?
There will indeed! I am just completing the first draft and Circus Maximus II will be out in the spring of 2022. I don’t think I can say much about it at the moment. But I can promise that a lot of the characters from the original will return, plus some new ones, and there’s a secret, seeded in Race to the Death, which plays a big part in the plot of the second book.
7. Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Circus Maximus: Race to the Death?
Don’t expect togas, grapes or dormice. Hopefully what you’ll discover instead is an exciting, action-packed read which makes you feel like you’ve been taken to another time and place and makes you cheer for Dido all the way.
My review of this incredible book:
Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is a powerful story of strength, daring and truth. Set on the sporting stage of Ancient Rome, Dido dreams of becoming the first girl to race chariots in the grand stadium of the Circus Maximus where the best horses and charioteers compete. Having lost her mother at a young age, Dido is raised by her father in the stables. There she learns that she has a unique bond with the horses, that she is a Roman horse whisperer, with a natural talent for driving. She is a strong, determined girl who can hold her own against anyone.
Then, one day, everything changes and Dido is forced to flee the life she knows. Dangerous secrets, cheating and lies reveal a powerful past she never knew that makes all the difference to her future. As Dido strives to prove herself in the brutal world of chariot racing, she learns more than just how to win. She learns about love, loss, hope and what is truly important to her.
In this richly detailed story, readers are transported back in time to the life and culture of this fascinating era. From the colourful markets to the warm stables to the boisterous roar of the crowds in the stadium, we are there with Dido as she struggles to survive and, indeed, to thrive.
Circus Maximus: Race to the Death delves into the rich and complex relationship between humans and horses. Throughout history, this bond has remained constant. Stories such as The Black Stallion, War Horse and now Circus Maximus, celebrate this incredible bond and just how much we owe to these majestic creatures.
This book will be very welcome in Key Stage Two classrooms. Teachers have been looking for quality stories to accompany their Roman history topics. Circus Maximus: Race to the Death fills this gap perfectly.
Children and adults alike will be carried away on this fast-paced, thrilling adventure. With breath-taking action and heart-stopping danger, they won’t be able to put it down.
Click on the cover below to find out more or purchase on-line from Amazon.
Click on the cover below to find out more or purchase on-line from Waterstones.