How far would your kids go to get out of a test at school? Go off on a secret service mission involving time travel?! For the hero of this new middle-grade novel, it’s worth the risk!
There is a lot of humour in the book, with the rather bizarre secret agents, a running gag about pink frilly knickers and of course the odd joke about the effects of baked beans, but I found that as the story went on the humour became more sparse and the tone shifted to more of a straight adventure story. There were some really quite scary bits – I won’t spoil the story but it does include lions in a gladiator arena – which further changed the tone. I did feel that this shift made it harder to read, as the two styles jarred a little the more serious the story became.
That said there are a lot of positives to the book. It would be great for lovers of ‘Horrible Histories’ and books about ancient civilisations as there is a lot of authentic detail about Roman history in the story. I especially liked the character of Jules, a plucky heroine with a love of learning. Her story would be a good springboard for talking about equality, both in terms of how slaves were treated and in terms of how girls were (and sometimes still are) seen as inferior and undeserving of education. She’s a great foil to Oliver, encouraging him not to give up on his quest to stop Dr Midnight.
Overall, despite my reservations about the tone I think this is an enjoyable read which would appeal to older primary-age readers who love history, adventure and the occasional joke about underwear!