With this exciting fantasy adventure, set in Ancient Rome, Jennifer A. Nielsen (The Ascendance Trilogy) launches another winning middle grade/YA series. Nicolas Calva is a slave working in the mines south of Rome, when General Radulf commands him to go into a recently discovered cave where it is reputed that Caesar’s treasure is buried. But there is more to this command that meets the eye, as Nic discovers when he is attacked by a griffin and then finds a bulla, a protective amulet worn Roman boys, that gives him magical powers.
After Nic’s abortive attempt to flee with both the griffin and the bulla, he ends up in Rome, where a series of adventures, including two thrilling episodes in the Colosseum, brings him closer to understanding what he has taken, and what it means to the Empire. He has to work to both develop and control his magic, which initially seems a bit amorphous, while at the same time decide which, if any, of the many seekers for the bulla has the most honorable motives.
Nic doesn’t have quite the charm or deviousness of Sage in The False Prince, though he is equally quick-witted. Like Sage, he is a reluctant central character in a complicated conspiracy and can only rely on himself, as he doesn’t know who else he can trust. Nic has no real desire to have the bulla and its magic, but cannot see an alternative that would allow him and his sister to live as free people. Many other characters are introduced, and while they are not particularly well-defined, with the exception of the feisty plebian Aurelia, their roles are more to keep the plot moving along, which they achieve admirably.
Unlike the completely fictional Carthya, Nielsen places Nic in an alternate Roman Empire of Emperor Tacitus, some three hundred years after Julius Caesar. Along with Nic, the reader learns about the social structure of Rome, the duplicitous and sophisticated political world, and gets a behind the scenes look at the Colosseum.
I am a huge fan of The False Prince, though I felt the series tapered off pretty disappointingly in books 2 and 3. Encouragingly, Mark of the Thief leaves Nic needing to find two other magical objects, so it feels like Ms. Nielsen has a solid plan and structure for the remainder of the series.