Horses? check. Capable determined young teenaged girl? check. Exciting appearances in the arenas of Rome? check. Yep, a book that might appeal to boys and girls alike, despite being written over 20 years ago.
Set in the eastern portions of the Roman Empire during the reign of Nero, Four Horses for Tishtry centers on a talented young girl1 who is determined to not only earn enough to purchase her family but also make a name for herself in the arena before retiring2 after earning enough to gain her own freedom. Tishtry is a bestiarii, a type of slave in the Roman Empire who performed with animals in the arena games. This differed from the racing charioteers in that the animals or the human (or both) did tricks, although in the case of horses, the team might do circuits of the arena while performing. Tishtry works with a team of horses drawing a chariot–specifically a four-horse quadrigae chariot (hence the title)–performing acrobatic tricks on (and under) the horses as they gallop around the arena. As a side note, Four Horses for Tishtry is a prequel to Yarbro’s 1979 Saint Germain novel, Blood Games; Tishtry, a secondary character in that book, was a performer at the Circus Maximus.
As the book begins, the thirteen year old Tishtry begins her career, setting off from her native Cappadocia for the arenae in Appollonia3and later Troas4 and Salonae. These were progressively larger communities with correspondingly larger arenae and sophisticated audiences; to excel, Tishtry must not only improve her own skills but train her horses to a higher standard and acquire equipment suitable to the stunts expected by these more cosmopolitan audiences. Her progress, though exhilarating and fulfilling for her personally, does require a number of sacrifices and disruptions: for starters, she has to leave her family behind and the only home she’s ever known. She must travel alone across distances that would daunt most teenagers today, under conditions that would make adults of today blanch: the Roman Empire was quite sophisticated for its day, with a system of roads and ships that were the envy of cultures of the time…but the distances and difficulties of traversing them meant that each time Tishtry moved, she had to leave friends and familiarity behind with little chance of seeing any again. The book ends before she reaches that ultimate dream of any arena slave, the Circus Maximus in Rome but judging by her trajectory, it’s strongly implied in this book that not only could she purchase her family but would reach that height, if purchased by someone with sufficient importance.
Overall, the language and material would probably be appropriate for kids in the 10-15 range, with a few caveats. Slavery is a significant theme in the book. While slavery in the Roman Empire was significantly different than in the United States–slaves could purchase their freedom and were for the most part the same race as their owners though they might be from different countries–this might require a bit of background explanation/reading for kids not up on history, as Yarbro doesn’t fill in much of the historical differences. Yarbro uses Latin period terms for many of the things specific to that time and location, which in some ways helps define the plot by that different time, but may confuse kids who aren’t familiar with the time period (I still have to double check some of the terms, though Yarbro included a glossary of the terms more likely to be unfamiliar.)
I hope libraries which own it would consider keeping it for the historical setting; I’m not sure how many books there are written for this age group set in this time period. It’s not detailed enough to give a complete picture of life at this time, much less a description of the practice of slavery in that time. Despite being a prequel to Yarbro’s St. Germain vampire series, Four Horses for Tishtry has no supernatural elements–I didn’t know it was a prequel to Blood Games until I searched for more information on the book prior to doing this review. It’s simply a historical tween/teen novel about a young girl making her way in the world.
113-15 as the story takes place
2free people could not perform in the arena
3several possible cities–not surprisingly ‘Appollonia’ was a common location name at the time