It’s a just another ordinary day at school for Alexander Papas; have your salt and vinegar crisps stolen by Dinu Balan, get summoned to the headteacher’s office to be questioned about attendance at the lunchtime Latin club and dental hygiene, then get invited to the central London headquarters of wealthy international hi-tech businessman Solomon Daisy.
Alex is almost thirteen but small for his age, unobtrusive, and he has no fillings in his teeth which is important; only living matter can be pass through the secret portal underneath London. There are other rules; Alex will have to travel there and back naked, he can drink when he is away but he can’t eat, and he must keep all interactions to a minimum.
And where exactly is “there?” Exactly where he left from, the reconstructed Temple of Mithras, just north of London Bridge by the Gherkin, but the more important question is “when,” as Alex’s skill in Latin and the native Greek of his grandmother with whom he lives with makes him the perfect candidate to the third century AD of Roman Londinium.
Offered a cash incentive simply to make the trip, Daisy promises more if Alex manages to locate a girl known to have lived in the city at that time and ascertain her life story so “Alexandros, son of Philippos” prepares to make trip in the unexpected and unwelcome company of a school bully turned gladiator who has adopted the name Dionysus.
From the author of The Roman Mysteries, Caroline Lawrence knows her period and her audience well, writing The Time Travel Diaries with confidence both in her historic setting and her characters, brave without being heroic, smart without being know-it-alls, surviving on wit and charm.
Despite expectation Alex comes to value his friendship with Dinu as much as his grasp of dead languages, but complications come when he finds the blue-eyed-blond of his quest, Lollia Honorata of the carved ivory knife, not the least of which is that despite Alex’s enviable perfect skin and teeth she quickly falls for the tall, muscular Dinu who has not been instructed in the importance of not fraternising with the natives.
Set in a familiar city which has transformed itself into a new landscape, the short chapters are filled with event giving the book great momentum which makies it easy to be tempted to read just one more chapter, even at bedtime, and while there is danger there is never threat, nakedness but never nudity, and Lawrence wants her young readers to enjoy reading the book as much as she has enjoyed writing it.
Tying educational historical detail to her narrative, despite the excitement which fills The Time Travel Diaries Lawrence does not romanticise the past; sanitation was primitive, illness was endemic, life expectancy was short even for the wealthy to say nothing of the slaves and beggars who line the streets, and following in the steps of Bilbo Baggins the best adventures are those which allow you to be home in time for tea, even if for Alex and Dinu that allows almost two thousand years’ leeway.
The Time Travel Diaries is available from 4th April from Piccadilly