Thursday, 2 January 2020

Book Review: 'Empire's End - A Roman Story' by Leila Rasheed

There are over 30 other books in Goodreads' Roman Britain in YA & Middle Grade Fiction Listopia list, some by eminent writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff. So why do we need another book which falls into this (very niche) category?

Well, Leila Rasheed has an important story to tell. Scholastic's Voices series focuses specifically on 'the unsung voices of our past' - in this particular book it's the voice of a young Libyan Roman woman who finds herself at the empire's end - in Britain. She has accompanied her father, a doctor, who is an aide to Septimius Severus, a Roman Emperor originally from Libya, and his powerful and influential Syrian wife, Julia Domna.

Not only do we get a much more diverse cast than in other historical novels, and are allowed to hear the stories of those who history doesn't always like to remember, but we also hear it from the pen of an author who herself grew up in Libya and who describes herself (on her Twitter bio at least) as British-Asian European.

CLPE's Reflecting Realities survey of ethnic representation in UK children's books  found that in 2018 only 4% of children's books published featured a Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) main protagonist. The BookTrust Represents research into representation of people of colour among children’s book authors and illustrators found that in 2017 less than 6% of book creators were from a BAME background. That's why we need this book.

But this doesn't just fill a void in the market, this is a seriously good book. The gripping and fast-paced story is all carefully interwoven with historical fact: a Roman emperor from Libya did live and die in York, archaeological research has shown that those with black African heritage did live in Britain during the Roman period and that people from all over the Roman provinces ended up marrying each other and having children.

In 'Empire's End' Rasheed imagines how one such character may have ended up in Britain, despite having been born in North Africa. Although slavery is a key theme in the book, it is important that we follow the story of a high status a BAME character - as we've mentioned before, it is these stories that are seldom told. As Camilla's destiny is linked to that of the struggle for power in the Roman Empire, nothing is very certain for her as she travels the world and settles in a place that seems as far from home as she can imagine. The story twists and turns, painting vivid characters and their realities in a human way against the backdrop of one of the Roman Empire's trickiest times.

Young readers will be thrilled to find this combination of qualities in one fairly short story which is bound to hold the attention of even the most flighty of readers. And with this being the fourth book in the series, there is already plenty for readers to go back and discover. A fantastic first read for 2020.

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