It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Alex Scarrow, in particular his TimeRiders series, which might in theory be a Young Adult series but in reality is a series that is ageless in its appeal. I look forward to few books as much as these and I am so pleased, but not at all surprised, to find that the fifth TimeRiders novel, Gates of Rome, is quite possibly the best.
The premise of the TimeRiders series is fantastic (with apologies for quoting myself from my overview of the series for My Favourite Books): ‘Three teens are given a choice in the seconds before their death – choose life and become a member of an agency so secret no-one knows its name or die for sure. But this is no normal life that they’re offered. All three will live locked within a time bubble, lodged under an arch in New York City during the two days of 10 and 11 September 2001. Their job is to watch for timewaves and ripples; evidence that something has happened to alter the past and so change the present. When that occurs, they must go back in time and fix it. So Liam (Titanic 1912), Maddy (plane crash 2010) and Sal (fire 2029) are recruited by the old man Foster and joined by a seven-foot support unit, Bob, an artificial intelligence and a killing machine that they have grown in a tube within their bubble.’
Each novel takes the TimeRiders on adventures into a misshaped past but there is another story that travels through the books, becoming both more mysterious and clearer with each one – the secrets behind the creation of the agency and what ‘the end’ really means. And so the novels combine brilliantly imagined new stories in different periods of the past (dinosaurs, Robin Hood, American Civil War for example) with glimpses of the future, while elaborating on mysteries and characters in which we have developed a close interest and fascination. By the end of this fifth novel, some questions have been answered but even more have been raised.
Without giving anything away, TimeRiders 5 takes Liam, Maddy and Sal, along with Bob, back to Rome in AD54. Caligula should have been dead for years but he is very much alive, living the belief that he is a god. This has been ingrained into him by the arrival of a group of Visitors 17 years before, accompanied by hovercraft, fierce giant soldiers and Bruce Springsteen (on record if not in person). This major transgression into the past from an unknown future causes a time wave that our young heroes must repel while also fighting for their lives against another set of visitors into their own 2001 time bubble. It is clear that the future is beginning to catch up with Liam, Maddy and Sal.
There is an added excitement in Gates of Rome thanks to the appearance of Macro and Cato, familiar and much loved figures from the popular Roman series by Alex Scarrow’s brother Simon. And then there’s Caligula, surely the most notorious of all Romans. Alex Scarrow depicts the horror of this Rome perfectly – this series is for teens not children and so there is violence, blood, torture and death and even worse, all presented with the most enormous and riveting skill. Above it all, though, are Liam, Maddy, Sal and Bob.
Alex Scarrow is a wonderful writer, expert at combining pace, drama, emotion and imagination with characters it’s hard not to care for. I’m looking forward to his next Adult Fiction novel – The Candle Man (Jack the Ripper on the Titanic – irresistible) but I am very glad that the TimeRiders series continues to go from strength to strength. Long may it continue!
TimeRiders 5: Gates of Rome is published on 2 February.