Blog Tour, Book Review, Middle Grade Fiction

Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track by Annelise Gray ~ Blog Tour

It’s my absolute privilege to kick off the blog tour for Circus Maximus: Rivals on Track, the thrilling sequel to Race to the Death, with an exclusive interview with author Annelise Gray.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about the second book in your absolutely fantastic Circus Maximus series, Rivals on the Track.

Thank you for having me! I’ve so appreciated your support for the Circus Maximus series.

1. When you wrote the first book in the series, Race to the Death, there wasn’t a lot of children’s fiction about ancient Rome available. What has the reaction from teachers and children been like?

Absolutely lovely. To be honest, I’m not really sure why there isn’t that much Roman fiction for kids out there although of course Caroline Lawrence is a trailblazer of the genre and a brilliant advocate for the study of the ancient world. But I’ve been so touched by the many messages I’ve had from teachers and parents, saying how enthusiastically their children have responded to Dido’s story. There was a particularly lovely email from a home educator saying that they had a great family experience listening to the audiobook in the car on a long journey and that it had made the children want to know lots more about the Romans. I’m lucky in that because I teach in a school where a lot of the pupils have read my book, I get lots of first-hand reaction from the boys and girls themselves. They sidle up to me quite often and ask me to sign their copy or beg to know when the second book is coming out.

2. Family and truth are key themes in this story. What inspired your ideas?

When I wrote Race to the Death, I didn’t dare look over the horizon to a sequel to be honest. I did have an idea in the back of my mind for where the story could go but it would have pushed the narrative quite a long way into the future. My publishers, Zephyr, were keen that Dido remain at the centre of the narrative, and once I started thinking about it, I realised there was an obvious story to tell which would reveal more about Dido’s mother Sophonisba, who was killed in a riding accident at the Circus Maximus when Dido was only a few months old. I’m so glad now that I got to explore that.

3. Dido is such an incredible role model for children – both girls and boys. How has she developed in this second book?

Dido aged from twelve to fourteen in Race to the Death and she goes through a lot of trauma in those two years which forces her to grow up pretty fast. Rivals on the Track picks up just after the events of the first book, and we see her facing new challenges that I’m sure will resonate with readers – doubts about her future, struggles with her identity, worries about her family. As a girl with unconventional dreams, living in a society that demands conformity from its female members, she faces a difficult path and she’s only just starting to realise how tough that’s going to be to navigate.

4. During your research, what is the most interesting thing you learned about Roman-controlled Northern Africa where this story is set?

Rome’s provincial holdings in Africa were first established with their destruction of their old rival Carthage in 146BCE. Ultimately, they expanded to incorporate territory in what is now Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, and were known as the ‘granary of the empire’, such was Rome’s dependence on Africa’s wheat harvest. The towns of Utica, where Dido’s uncle Scorpus lives, and Thugga (modern Dougga) are among the best-preserved sites from that period, and most of the action in Rivals on the Track is set between them. One of the things I found interesting to read about was the number of military veterans from the Roman army who were given land in Africa as part of their retirement settlement. The character of Gemellus Glabrio – a wealthy Roman with a property near Thugga, who is seeking to impress the emperor by building a new chariot racing track  – is partly inspired by the idea of those colonial settlers.

5. What messages are you hoping to communicate to your readers through this story?

Most of my favourite fictional characters growing up were girls with a point to prove – whether it was Jo March in Little Women or Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. They have definitely inspired Dido and if there’s a message I hope readers will take away, it’s never to give up on your dreams and above all, be true to yourself.

6. What’s next for you? Will there be any more books in the Circus Maximus series or are you working on something different?

I am indeed working on the third book in the Circus Maximus series, about which I can say nothing at the moment except that it will pick up not too long after the events of Rivals on the Track. There will come a day when I have to leave Dido behind of course and I have some ideas for new historical stories with new characters, which I’d love to write one day. But for now, Dido and I have more of our race to run.

7. Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track?

I love it when people tell me how much they enjoy the pace and adrenaline-filled energy of the Circus Maximus books. But when I’m writing them, the emotional core of the story is just as important to me. One of the ‘unlocking’ moments when I was drafting Rivals on the Track came while I was watching the Netflix documentary The Last Dance, about basketball legend Michael Jordan. It made me think about how the test of a great champion isn’t how they react to success, it’s how they respond to defeat and how they deal with doubt. And that was something that helped me shape what the book was going to be about.

My review:

Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track is the stunning sequel to Annelise’s Gray’s Roman adventure, Race to the Death. Set in Roman-controlled Northern Africa in AD 38, it paints a vivid picture of the power and passion of the world of horses and chariot racing.

After defeating the emperor’s team at the great Circus Maximus stadium in Rome, Dido has no choice but to flee and disguise herself as a boy. Insulted and humiliated, the emperor is furious. He wants her back in Rome and is willing to pay a reward to whoever can deliver.  

Chariot racing is a man’s world – one that she just might have to leave behind. Unable to be herself, Dido isn’t really sure who she is. But when Jewel, a beautiful one-eyed mare, comes into her life, the spark reignites. Does she dare to race again?

Rivals on the Track is a thundering adventure overflowing with danger and daring. In this unforgiving world, only the toughest survive. Dido must gather all of her strength and determination to fight for those she cares about and keep her identity a secret. As she discovers the truth about her family, there is even more to fight for. With old enemies are around every corner, this is going to be more difficult than she ever imagined.

Teachers often ask for book recommendations to accompany a history topic on the Romans. The Circus Maximus series has slotted into that gap for Upper Key Stage Two beautifully. The attention to detail in the setting descriptions and day-to-day life of the characters shows children just what it would have been like to live 2000 years ago. The reach of the emperor and influence of his rule is clear as everything revolves around his desires and plans. Dido is a feisty girl who won’t be stopped just because of her gender. Again and again, she proves that she is just as capable as the boys and nothing will stand in her way – a wonderful role model for all readers.

Thank you to Zephyr Books & Fritha Lindqvist for this fantastic book!

Click on the covers below to find out more or purchase on-line from Amazon or


Books by Kate Heap:

Contemporary Children’s Literature: Years 5/6

Contemporary Children’s Literature: Years 3/4

Nonfiction: Years 5/6

Nonfiction: Years 3/4

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