Frances Watts, The Chicken’s Curse, Allen and Unwin, February 2020, 272pp, RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760525569
Two runaway slaves and a sacred chicken walk into a bar… no, Rome.
Such is the goal in the delightful The Chicken’s Curse from Frances Watts – who makes historical fiction laugh out loud funny!
Felix is in a Roman camp, growing increasingly nervous when the general refuses to listen to the sacred chicken – the chicken who advises all generals when to go to war, and when to avoid it. Also, the chicken wants cake a lot. The general in question is determined to go into battle, and that night Felix takes his chances and escapes the camp to return to Rome and his mother, meeting the sacred chicken and Livia along the way.
Felix is filled with a kind of innocent earnestness. It could get irritating quickly, but Watt’s command of humour in pretty much every situation just makes him an easy character to love.
Livia has more to be afraid of, and as such is very cautious when she and Felix (and the chicken) start travelling together. She wants to save her brother, who is about to be sent to the lions in Rome and needs to be there in time. Slowly but surely Felix breaks down her walls, and soon enough they are working together, avoiding the people that are chasing them and the chicken as if they had always been friends, and know each other inside out.
Watts takes these two on a wild adventure, during which they find a camel who isn’t as big a help as he should be, and a magic carpet and they manage to lose the chicken along the way. However, despite meeting a varied bunch of travelling companions, the focus remains on Felix and Livia’s developing friendship. These two learn about each other and learn to count on each other.
Watts also makes the historical period fun to read about, and I wished there could have been even more historical details that readers aged 8-12 could have absorbed.
Frances Watts is an accomplished writer, and it shows in her humour and the characterisation of Felix and Livia. But I did wonder about the pacing: their journey to Rome takes an awfully long time, robbing the book of the urgency that comes with Livia’s fear for her brother. It is a minor quibble in an otherwise fun (magic carpet) ride!
Reviewed by Verushka Byrow