Teenagers chase family secrets and political intrigue in the ancient Mediterranean.
In this third book of her Ancient Elements series, Sontag (The Alabaster Jar, 2015, etc.) follows her characters through Egypt, Crete, and Tyre as they pursue missing relatives, revenge, and redemption. Although the volume opens with a prologue set in 300 B.C., the rest of the novel takes place 1,400 years earlier, with 15-year-old Samsuluna still mourning the death of his adoptive father, Balashi. Carrying a silver coin Balashi gave him, Samsuluna leaves Egypt on a ship with his friend Keret to search for a relative. “They say it takes about seven days to sail from Egypt to the Phoenician city of Tyre,” Samsuluna tells Keret. “Once we get to Tyre, I’ll finally be able to complete my quest and reunite with my Uncle Zim-ri-lin.” An encounter with pirates leads to a detour to Crete, where Samsuluna falls in love with Princess Ari-adné. Meanwhile, Samsuluna’s father, Dagon, just released from prison, also heads to Tyre, where he plans to steal his brother’s treasure and take revenge on his family. In Egypt, Samsuluna’s adoptive sister, Amata, ends up in the midst of a coup attempt. All the characters eventually reunite in Tyre, seeking to resolve loose ends, including Samsuluna’s feelings of responsibility for the death of Balashi. An appendix provides curriculum-related questions for each chapter. Sontag’s Mediterranean world is a vivid one, and the story makes clear that even thousands of years ago, residents of the region were well traveled and knowledgeable about their realm. The book’s narration is less effective, with heavy-handed asides (“If I cut my scraggily hair and trimmed my long beard, I might look as respectable as this fellow”) and awkward metaphors (“He compared it to the difference between eating a piece of flatbread, and eating a piece of flatbread dripping in honey”). The book’s informational goals are at times too obvious (“Our peaceful society here on Crete thrives because of our excellent seamanship and extensive trading businesses”), and stilted dialogue (“I realize now that my need to treat your arm and relieve your physical pain is greater than my need to lessen my emotional pain”) can pull the reader out of the story. But individuals looking for curriculum-based fiction may find the book a valuable tool.
While offering a vibrant ancient world, this middle-grade adventure lacks strong narration.