Curses and Smoke (a Novel of Pompeii) by Vicky Alvear Shecter

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When your world blows apart, what will you hold on to?

Tag is a medical slave, doomed to spend his life healing his master’s injured gladiators. But his warrior’s heart yearns to fight in the gladiator ring himself and earn enough money to win his freedom.

Lucia is the daughter of Tag’s owner, doomed by her father’s greed to marry a much older Roman man. But she loves studying the natural world around her home in Pompeii, and lately she’s been noticing some odd occurrences in the landscape: small lakes disappearing; a sulfurous smell in the air…

When the two childhood friends reconnect, each with their own longings, they fall passionately in love. But as they plot their escape from the city, a patrician fighter reveals his own plans for them — to Lucia’s father, who imprisons Tag as punishment. Then an earthquake shakes Pompeii, in the first sign of the chaos to come. Will they be able to find each other again before the volcano destroys their whole world?

Publisher and Release Date: Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2014

RHR Classifications:
Time and Setting: 1st Century Roman Empire
Genre: Romantic Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Heat Level: 1
Reviewer Rating: 4 stars

Review by Jenny Q

I am loving the increase in young adult historical fiction titles. I read a lot of YA, and I’m all for anything that gets kids interested in history. So when I saw Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter, whose debut novel, Cleopatra’s Moon, has been on my wishlist forever, I had to read it. And I loved it – mostly.

This is the story of Lucia, a privileged young woman living in Pompeii. The only surviving child of the owner of a gladiator school, she is pretty much free to live and do as she pleases . . . until the day her father betrothes her to a man old enough to be her grandfather in exchange for an influx of cash into his struggling school. Despite her pending nuptials, she’s determined to carry on as she always has while trying to come up with a scheme to get out of the marriage. She’s very interested in the natural world and has been documenting a series of events and observations that trouble her: an increase in tremors, springs drying up, the smell of sulfur hanging in the air, behavioral changes in animals. She pores over her father’s scrolls of Pliny’s Natural History, even campaigning to get an audience with the great man himself to speak with him of her troubling discoveries. But no one will take her opinion, that of a woman and a young one to boot, seriously. Only Tag, a slave in her father’s school and a childhood friend, lends any credence to her observations.

Tag knows he should stay away from Lucia – after all, her father has promised death to any man who touches her – but he can’t resist the call of her beauty and brains, her tender heart, or the way she treats him like a human being worthy of respect. Trained as a medical slave, Tag yearns to fight alongside the gladiators he patches up to attain his dream of earning his freedom. Falling in love with Lucia was not part of the plan. But as her wedding draws near and she becomes increasingly more desperate to avoid it, the two form a plan of escape and begin to build dreams around the possibility of a totally new future free from all bonds. But trouble arrives in the form of Quintus, a haughty young patrician who comes to the school to play at being a gladiator, and who finds pleasure in flirting with and tormenting both Lucia and Tag. His meddling could unravel all of their carefully laid plans. And Tag has a secret. A burden he’s been carrying since the death of Lucia’s mother three years earlier. If Lucia ever finds out, she may never want to see him again, and he may not survive her father’s wrath. And if all of that weren’t enough, just when our young lovers seem to be on the verge of attaining everything they ever wanted, the mountain explodes, raining down ash, rock, and fire, and the world as they know it ceases to exist.

The first thing that struck me about this story is that Lucia is just like a typical teenager. Although thousands of years have passed between her time and ours, some things never change, and I loved this glimpse into what a teenager’s life could have been like during this time period. Lucia visits with friends, goes shopping, spends a day at the spa, spends hours in her secret place writing in her journals . . . though the similarities end when she is forced into an arranged marriage to a much older man, and she has the shadow of Mount Vesuvius looming over her. The story is told in alternating viewpoints by Lucia and Tag in the month leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. This structure works wonderfully, allowing the reader to experience this time period from the perspectives of very different walks of life while witnessing how they interacted with each other, and allowing the romance to develop beautifully, and the anticipation of the coming eruption to simmer until it reaches the boiling point. The story is rife with drama, and it has its fair share of melodramatic moments, but it is delicious! It’s a historical tribute, a sweet and poignant love story combined with the action and excitement of an end-of-days tale.

All that being said, the novel is not perfect. At times I thought the dialogue felt too modern, and I felt that the development and resolution of the subplot with Quintus was a given short-shrift. And while I can look back now and appreciate the impact and beauty of the ending, when I first read it, I was not prepared for it, and I was not a happy camper! I’m still a little mad about it now, but I can admire the power of a story well told.

All of that aside, Curses and Smoke is still a great read; fast-paced, exciting, and romantic, and oozing with historical ambiance – perfect for fans of young adult and historical fiction alike.

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