Project Exodus - a mission to transport 300 Americans from 2070 to 54AD to overthrow the Roman Empire - has gone catastrophically wrong. Half have arrived seventeen years earlier, during the reign of Caligula.
Liam goes to investigate, but when Maddy and Sal attempt to flee a kill-squad sent to hunt down their field office, all of the TimeRiders become trapped in the Roman past.
Armed with knowledge of the future, Caligula is now more powerful than ever. But with the office unmanned - and under threat - how will the TimeRiders make it back to 2001 and put history right?
We are half way into Alex Scarrow's brilliant TimeRiders series and I am finding it increasingly difficult to review these books for fear of giving away massive spoilers. I tried to write a review for TimeRiders: The Eternal War when I had read it but found it so difficult I eventually gave in, and simply writing "It's brilliant, read it immediately" was, I felt, a little too brief for a blog post. Now that I have finished this fifth book, Gates of Rome, I am still a little hesitant (it could be a very short review), but feel that I owe it to Alex Scarrow and the good people at Puffin who very kindly sent me a copy to review.
Every time I finish a TimeRiders book I sit back and marvel at the quality of Alex Scarrow's storytelling. He is slowly weaving an incredibly complex nine volume story, and I feel I should be prostrating myself before him, doubting my worthiness. Steven Moffat really should get in touch with him as I would love to see a Doctor Who episode written by Alex Scarrow.
At the end of The Eternal War we were left with more questions that an episode of Mastermind. The first three books in the series introduced us to the characters, and the emphasis was on how they would react to the various eras in which they found themselves, whilst also giving us morsels of the growing mystery surrounding the purpose of their agency. And then BAM!, the end of book three and then the fourth book added layer upon layer to the overall story arc. I think The Eternal War is still my favourite book in the series so far - much as I love the fast-paced action of the first three, this one slowed things down a little and really made my brain fizz with excitement as it tried to process the mystery aspects of the story arc.
The opening chapters of Gates of Rome alternate between Cheyenne Mountain, 2070 and the now familiar setting of New York, 2001. In 2001 Sal and Maddy are continuing to try to fathom out some of the questions that began to form in their minds in previous books, and Maddy finally shares with Sal some of the secrets that are burning a huge hole in her brain. Sixty-nine years into the future and we watch as the Exodus Project begins to reach zero hour. In 2070 the environment has been pretty much killed off, with billions living in squalor, and a team of scientists, soldiers and politicians are readying themselves to travel back to AD54 to take over the Roman Empire and establish a new society based on American values. Unfortunately, a catastrophic event means the project is accelerated, calculations are rushed and the group end up being sent back at AD 37, the survivors finding that they have arrived during the reign of Caligula, an emperor who was renowned for being more than a little mad. Unfortunately for our band of TimeRiding heroes the ensuing time waves hit 2001 NYC at the same time as a group of lab-grown assassins arrive, their mission to destroy Maddy and her friends. In the process of trying to evade their pursuers, Maddy and Sal find themselves escaping back to AD54, joining Bob and Liam and leaving no-one behind to get them back to the 21st Century. Not good!
Thanks to the arrival of the Exodus team Caligula has become even more insane, thinks he is a god, and has managed to avoid being assassinated as he would have been if the time stream had not been contaminated. Somehow the team must survive the dangers of a brutal Ancient Rome, discover what event changed to accepted version of history, find a way back to 2001, survive the assassins that may still be waiting there for them, and finally mend history (again). If that seems like an impossible task for three teenagers and a support unit then you may be right this time.
This book comes with everything the previous books had - great action scenes, brilliant characters, answered questions and then more questions created, and a vivid depiction of the historical era that the tram find themselves in. I must confess I have never been a fan of books set in Ancient Rome (in fact, I rarely read any historical fiction set before Tudor times), but I found that Alex Scarrow's descriptions of the horrors of Rome under Caligula completely absorbing, and written so well that I found it very easy to picture the sights, smells and sounds in my mind. In this book Caligula is even nastier than history portrayed him, and so we are treated to descriptions of torture and violence that will have teen boys gagging for more.
My only problem with the TimeRiders books is that there are so many layers and mysteries to the stories that by the time I read each new book I have forgotten some of what went before. There are four more books scheduled in the series, with the next one, City of Shadows, scheduled for an August 2012 release (less than six months away - whoop! whoop!). I have a feeling that come the publication of the ninth book I may have to take myself away to a cabin on a remote island somewhere with nothing to do but read the entire series back-to-back, if I am to get my head completely around all of the many plot strands that Alex Scarrow is so carefully weaving together.