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Terrific tales of stirring times  

09 December 2016

Fiona Hook is gripped by some historical novels for children

Rome in Flames (Tales of Rome series)
Kathy Lee
SPCK £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30

Hill of the Angels
Sue Mayfield
SPCK £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30



WHEN a character in a novel’s first few pages says “You saw the last great battle when we got rid of the Romans for ever,” you know something awful’s going to happen. The first two books of Kathy Lee’s gripping trilogy tell how a ten-year-old British boy, Bryn, and his brother are captured and sold as slaves in Rome. Conan becomes a gladiator, Bryn joins a wealthy household, where he is befriended by a Christian fellow slave, and begins to feel the presence of God in his own life. As Rome goes up in flames, the mad emperor Nero blames the sect that refuses to worship him, and Bryn and his friends are arrested.

Both books are beautifully structured, with plenty of cliffhangers, and pack a great deal of miscellaneous information about daily life in ancient Rome into relatively few pages. Despite the extreme simplicity of the language — these are books for children after all — Lee succeeds in dealing with sophisticated concepts such as the terror of belonging to a banned faith, and the idea that slavery was not necessarily a life of misery. Her handling of Bryn’s burgeoning faith is delicately done. It is integral to the story, but the reader never feels preached at.

Hill of the Angels is set in the English Civil War, but has many parallels with our own day. It is 1640, and a weaver’s daughter, Abigail Booth, and the vicar’s child, Grace Fowler, strike up a friendship, drawn together by the love of wild hills and the angels who dance on the walls of their secret cave.

In the outside world, the King is trying to rule without Parliament, and the country explodes into war. Abigail’s family is split apart. Will, earnest and energetic, joins the Parliamentary forces. Sunny, easy-going Oliver opts to follow his employer and fight for the King. Iconoclasts wreck the church, Grace’s father is forced to flee, as priests are being murdered, and the family, unprotected, have to leave their home.

It is a different world from our own, but the terrifying way in which a war can blight ordinary lives, destroying the Booth family’s growing cloth business, while the status that safeguards you can be suddenly ripped away, is horribly familiar, as is the pointless destruction of beautiful artwork because it doesn’t reflect a particular ideology. The story is also a tribute to the power of friendship, which, happily, is something else that never changes.


Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.

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