Review: Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter

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Okay, wow, Curses and Smoke put me through an emotional meat grinder.  I was a bit hesitant to read a book based on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, mainly because I had reservations about receiving a happy ever after.  I mean, this story is framed around one of the greatest natural disasters of the ancient world.  I can’t imagine how the people of Pompeii felt during the earthquake, and then when the mountain exploded with a deafening boom, vomiting a deadly mix of debris 20 miles into the air.  I know how I would feel, and I at least understand some of the science behind the event.  Not so for the citizens of Pompeii.

I loved Curses and Smoke until the last three chapters, and while I would like to leave it at that, I will warn you – there is no happy ending here.  I felt extremely depressed when I got to the end of the book, after a marathon reading session last Saturday.  I even stayed up way past my bedtime to finish, and then BANG!  I couldn’t sleep because I was so upset by the ending.  While my original fears of doom and gloom did manifest, they had nothing to do with the volcano and everything to do with greed and an inflated sense of ego.  So senseless! Ugh!

Lucia’s father runs a school for gladiators in Pompeii.  He is desperately in need of funds to expand operations, so he arranges Lucia’s marriage to a rich patrician, a man forty years her senior.  Lucia is beside herself; she doesn’t want to marry someone older than her grandfather, but her father’s mind is made up. 

When Tages, a medical slave who was her childhood friend, returns from studying in Rome, Lucia is even more determined to find a way out of the upcoming wedding.  She loves Tag, and she will do anything to be with him.  She’s even willing to run away, despite the danger and risks it would pose.  For Tag, however, running away isn’t an option.  He won’t leave his elderly father behind, and Lucia’s father is cruel and doesn’t hesitate to punish his slaves for the slightest offense.  Running off with his daughter would mean a painful death, for both Tag and his father.

I found the details of Roman daily life interesting, and most were seamlessly woven into the story.  The book is told through alternating POVs, following both Tag and Lucia during the four weeks leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  While Lucia frets about her impending marriage and her complete loss of freedom, Tag tries to fit back into the daily grind of the gladiator school.  He wants nothing more than to train himself, so he can win his freedom one day, but he’s far too valuable to Lucia’s father to be allowed to fight.  His frustration with his lot in life, especially after rich boy Quintus begins training at the school, radiates off the pages.  He is trapped, and there is no way out of his servitude.  Like Tag, Lucia is also trapped.  She has no say in the path her life will take, and it seems that she, too, will live the rest of her life in servitude to her elderly husband (why does being a girl suck in almost every culture?).

Lucia’s father believes he is under a curse, and he blames Tag for the ill-luck that has befallen his school since the death of Lucia’s mother.  The curse weaves through the story, twisting like a snake from one misfortune to the next.  While I don’t believe in curses, I do believe in karma, and Titurius earned every bit of bad luck that visited him.  The more I learned about him, the less I liked him.  The real tragedy of Curses and Smoke is how his actions brought terrible consequences for the people he should have loved and protected the most.  Instead, he failed everyone close to him, including himself.

Setting aside the ending, which is a complete downer, I really enjoyed Curses and Smoke.  I love the time period and the setting, and the backdrop of impending disaster kept me on the edge of my seat.  Lucia is a sharply intelligent young woman, who notices the strange events taking place around Pompeii  and yearns to discover the reason for them.  She also yearns for the freedom to love a man of her choice, instead of being sold like a brood mare.  If you are interested in Ancient Rome, you will probably enjoy Curses and Smoke, too.


HF Virtual Book Tours invites you to follow Vicky Alvear Shecter as she tours the blogosphere for Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii from May 26-June 13.

Curses and Smoke

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Publication Date: May 27, 2014

Arthur A. Levine Books

Formats: Hardcover, eBook

Genre: YA Historical   

When your world blows apart, what will you hold onto? 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?

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About the AuthorVicky Alvear Shecter

Vicky Alvear Shecter is the author of the young adult novel, CLEOPATRA’S MOON (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2011), based on the life of Cleopatra’s only daughter. She is also the author of two award-winning biographies for kids on Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. She is a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta.

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