This book is a clever combination of mythology, history and fantasy. This is the first of the stories of Nic, a slave boy working in the mines of Rome. He is approached one day and commanded to go into an area of the mine where other miners have disappeared. His task is to retrieve the bulla that used to belong to Julius Caesar. A bulla is an amulet given to a baby boy when he is born. It is dedicated to a particular god and shows the protection of that god until the boy becomes a man. Then he puts aside the bulla, a mark of putting aside his childhood, and takes his place as a Roman citizen.
This particular bulla has magical powers which Nic can enhance because he, too, has magical powers. He did not know about these powers until he comes in contact with the bulla. Nic finds that the reason the other miners had not returned was that the treasure of Caesar was being guarded by a griffin. Nic calls the griffin Caela, since she is from the skies. She helps him escape because she recognizes his magical powers.
How Nic manages to thwart a powerful senator, how he survives the gladiator fight, and what he learns about the power struggles in Rome are the main themes of the story. Even though the story does have a satisfactory conclusion, the promise of more exciting tales lies at the end of the book.
I was a little upset at the anachronism with the mention of “blasting” in the mines at the first of the book. Blasting as a form of mining could not have occurred until after the 9th century when the Chinese developed gunpowder. The Romans sometimes used fire in mining as a way of making the rocks crack, but that is not the same thing as blasting.
I do recommend this for middle school readers. It may get them to want to learn more about Roman mythology and/or history.