Warriors In Winter (Magic Tree House #31), by Mary Pope Osborne
Upon reading this book I was for some time mildly puzzled as to why it was that my library suggested this book as part of my reading on Marcus Aurelius, but upon reading it I do indeed recognize the connection that this book has, although it has more to do with the Roman Empire and the immensely lax security that would allow two bumbling children to have the sort of access that they do to the Roman Emperor as well as the armor and weapons of a Roman legion on a war footing in the area of Dacia. This sort of book, of course, works best if one does not think too much about it, and probably makes more sense if one has read the first 30 volumes of the series first, as I did not and very likely will not. If this book was enjoyable enough to read on its own, it certainly is not nearly as exciting a book as it thinks it is and the author seems to rely on the reader’s familiarity with the characters to account for the interest, which is a mistaken assumption in this case at least.
This book is less than 100 pages and among its various issues it is at least not too challenging of a read for its middle grade target audience. A brief prologue leads the not entirely genius protagonists to follow an eagle with a vague poem that then causes them to be transported in time to the late 2nd century AD. After this the kids encounter a mysterious lone rider on a black horse and then sneak into a Roman legionary camp with the password and a plausible excuse about why they are there. Of course, predictably they get into trouble in their investigations as they look for a hero in disguise and eventually engage in petty theft by trying on some of the Roman armor and weapons for themselves, which leads them to a dangerous spot. Because this is a children’s novel and not something written by someone like myself, one knows that there will be an obvious deus ex machina ending to save the children from their own stupidity and (spoiler alert) it happens that the mysterious horsemen they had met ends up being the emperor, who takes their coin from the future and ponders on how he will defeat the Germanic tribes in the winter before the kids return home satisfied with their adventures.
Time travel stories like this one are sometimes quite difficult to create well, and this book certainly has a lot of improbabilities about it. When one examines, say, the general lack of martial ardor the main characters have or the puzzling question of why it is that they are sent back to engage in action that would highly endanger their lives with nothing more than vague hints as to what they should be doing, then it is easy to neglect larger improbabilities like the space-time paradox that the book involves or the way that the book views Marcus Aurelius as a hero. That is, at least to me, the most puzzling part of many books I have read about the Roman Empire, the tendency that many writers have of making a priggish anti-Christian bigot and bad father into some sort of hero for the ages because he happened to write some thoughtful fortune cookie material as a diary. It is baffling that so many people should find his writings so impressive when his behavior against Christians was so reprehensible. Suffice it to say that this book does not deal with the religious biases of Aurelius, or even bring them up as a negative aspect of his reign. No, this book is all hero worship and mediocre fantasy pablum.