September AD 80. Flavia and her friends go to Rome to celebrate the Festival of Jupiter at Senator Cornix's town house. When a famous racehorse goes missing, Nubia sets out to recover it. The four friends find themselves caught up in a plot against one of the rival factions, the Greens. Who is trying to sabotage the charioteers? Could it be an inside job, or someone with a grudge from long ago? How many men and horses will die before the killer is caught?
Fortunately, for Flavia and company her father has to be away so they (and we) go back to Rome where the races for the Ludi Romani are about to be held. In Rome, we join Senator Cornix’s household, including the delightful Sisyphus. The senator has his own seats at the Circus Maximus and is a huge supporter of the Greens. Along the way we meet a rather helpful one-legged beggar, who provides a clue to the finding of Saggita, and Urbanus the racing master of the Greens. Sagitta is found by the four detectives who claim the reward but it was all too easily and Flavia believes there is another more complex mystery yet to solve.
Caroline Lawrence provides magnificent and well-researched chariot races that will be eye-openers for those who think the file film Ben-Hur shows an actual ancient chariot race. The diagram of the Circus Maximus at the front of the book is very helpful in determining where the characters are at times in the book. The writing of the races is exciting and realistic. This book is among the highlights of the series and one that you can’t put down.
It is there that the youngsters are met with another mystery: one of the Greens’ prize-winning horses has gone missing, and a large reward is promised to those who can bring him back safely. Excited by this prospect, the foursome begin the search, helped by a mysteries one-legged beggar who seems to know more than he’s letting on. But the search for the stolen stallion is only the beginning of the intrigues in store. Someone is sabotaging the Greens’ chances at winning the races, and there’s no shortage of suspects for the children to investigate.
The focus of books in this series usually alternates between the four main characters, and here it is Nubia who takes center-stage. Haunted by terrible dreams of fire, and discovering a newfound gift in her affiliation with horses, the wise and gentle ex-slave fights her inner demons as she and her friends try to uncover the mystery behind the disappearing horses. Though she is the most grounded of the four children, she’s not above acting impulsively or making mistakes, and since Nubia is seldom in the spotlight, it’s a welcome change to see her as the central protagonist.
Equally interesting is the character of Scopas, based on a real person who was one of Rome’s most successful charioteers. Lawrence has made him autistic (undiagnosed obviously), and his odd idiosyncrasies of referring to himself in the third person, disliking people touching him, and enjoying the feeling of being constrained, all serve to not only make him a fascinating character, but to demonstrate the challenges that anyone with behavioral difficulties faced in any time period. It’s touching to see Nubia and her friends accept him despite his perceived strangeness, not to mention the way he eventually wins over the bullies in the stable.
Despite the emphasis on Nubia (my favorite character), “The Charioteer of Delphi” didn’t quite grab me the way that other books in the series have done. As the twelfth book in the series, it feels a little bit like filler, with no real character or overarching plot development, though by itself, it’s still a very good read. In the past I’ve cautioned against reading these books out of order, but this particular installment is so self-contained, you could probably get away with reading it on its own terms.