Young adult novels set in ancient Rome

Don’t know anything about these books, but they could be worth chasing.
Chronicle Herald

Loving Lord of the Rings led Jack Mitchell to take up Latin while still in high school.

Now he’s navigating his love of Latin and the ancient world into a writing career.

The author of the young adult novels The Roman Conspiracy and The Ancient Ocean Blues is planning to read from his historical fiction this month at several Halifax libraries, although at press time the details hadn’t been ironed out.

He’s also set to recite his 50-minute epic poem, The Plains of Abraham, at 7 p.m. on March 9 at Dalhousie University’s Marion McCain Building and to present a paper to the university’s classics department.

The latter appearances may seem a bit rarefied and Mitchell’s own credentials — he studied classics at McGill University and has a PhD in classics from Stanford University — a bit out of the realm of his prime reading audience of 11-13-year-olds.

But the 32-year-old New Brunswick native boils down the basics of history and adventure, even romance, in his fictional stories, inspired by real life centuries ago.

“If your hair is combed you’re not supposed to be interested in the ancient world,” Mitchell says during a recent telephone interview from his Toronto home.

“I’d say that there’s a certain element . . . of the mad scientist in our view of the historian and someone interested in ancient literature, and I wanted to sort of make it much more accessible and to basically say this is not something that’s completely rarefied. It was a real world full of real interesting people and everyone should be able to travel back in time.”

Books started taking Mitchell back in time during his junior high years. He used his love of J.R.R. Tolkien to step into Latin studies, where he found great texts in a dead language — stories alive with plot and poetry of “sheer beauty.”

Now he wants to share some part of that ancient time with today’s teenagers.

“It was about that age that I first began to be interested in the ancient world and that made such a big difference for me in my life that I wanted to be able to reach out and make it available because I think people love it when they find out about it.

“The 60s BC actually happens to be this era that we know more about than almost any other decade until the modern period because it’s so well documented in letters and histories, and the Romans themselves thought of it as their great decade so . . . I didn’t have to make up too much and . . . there were lots of interesting real people,” says Mitchell, who weaves fictional young people in the middle of historic events.

In his latest, The Ancient Ocean Blues, the author puts his teenaged hero Marcus Oppius and his love interest Paulla in the midst of a newly elected Julius Caesar’s world. Bribery and shipwrecks, pirates and slavery ensue as the young hero and his companions become embroiled in political intrigues. The fast-paced adventure suits Mitchell’s own tastes, from Tolkien to his recent reading interest — John le Carre.

“I love something with a good strong plot,” he says. “I love characterization as much as anybody but for me the plot is the driving thing both as a reader and as a writer.”

His young readers appear to love plot as well. The response to his books has been “extremely positive” judging from comments in online forums. Young readers also nominated The Roman Conspiracy for British Columbia’s Red Cedar Book Awards.

“They really have an appetite for Roman history, much more than you’d probably think,” Mitchell says. “And I think it’s as much the good material that I have to work with as my own humble skill as an author.”

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