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Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii

Review

Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii

written by Vicky Alvear Shecter and [2]
In CURSES AND SMOKE, Lucia is the only surviving child of her father, who runs a gladiator school in the Roman town of Pompeii. She is inquisitive, beautiful and unwillingly betrothed to Vitulus, a man 45 years older than Lucia who has bargained to pour money into her father’s gladiator school. The mediocre-at-best business needs the funding. Lucia sees no possibility of escape until Tages, or Tag, returns to the household. Tag was once her childhood friend and playmate. He is a trained medicus, or healer. He is also a slave.
 
CURSES AND SMOKE is an impeccably-researched novel, firmly grounded in a sense of time and place. 
 
From an impossible situation, a love story begins. Lucia starts to better understand the plight of Tag, whose burning desire to be free dominates his life. Though she is the wealthy daughter of his owner, she sees Tag as a person in his own right. In turn, Tag’s overwhelming resentment and hatred lessens as Lucia becomes a light and a dream in his repressed life. They share childhood memories and forge new ones in an old fort they had built as children in the woods. Lucia, a careful observer of nature, had gone to the fort to note changes in Pompeii’s surroundings, but now she has another reason: Tag. The two share a growing attraction that blossoms into love, even as Lucia’s detested marriage looms.
 
Is there hope to run away? The shaking ground, mysterious phenomena of nature, and a dark secret Lucia does not know threaten their forbidden plans. 
 
CURSES AND SMOKE is an impeccably-researched novel, firmly grounded in a sense of time and place. Subtle details bring the reader to a greater understanding of ancient times without a history lesson. From market scenes to the characters’ very thoughts, the culture of Pompeii is clear. The book also reflects the loose morality of Roman times.
 
Beneath the overarching story, a subliminal issue nags. Even the main characters, despite believable backgrounds, lack depth and emotional range. One exception would be the sweet, seemingly-minor part of Castor, a small slave boy. Tag takes Castor under his wings. Eager, trusting, and dependent on Tag, Castor’s role has more consequences than it seems. More obvious problems in the story are the loose ends and internal dialogue which lead the reader back and forth before settling into the plot. Unnecessary parts of the story detract from the overall novel, such as the confusing subplot of Quintus, a wealthy patrician who trains with Tag at the gladiator school. CURSES AND SMOKE ends in a disconcertingly abrupt manner, taking a wild turn that didn’t make sense in the storyline. Despite these disappointments, I would still recommend this book.
 
Although less developed than it could be, CURSES AND SMOKE is an enjoyable read with impressive research. It’s a relatable take on one of history’s drastic events --- the eruption of Mount Vesuvius --- and an engaging love story fraught with tension.

Reviewed by Mary McC., Teen Board Member on June 5, 2014

Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii
written by Vicky Alvear Shecter and [2]

  • Publication Date: May 27, 2014
  • Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult 12+
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0545509939
  • ISBN-13: 9780545509930