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I Belong

Review: Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Curses and SmokeTitleCurses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii

AuthorVicky Alvear Shecter

Genre: YA Historical Fiction

Series: N/A

Publication Date: May 27, 2014

Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages

ISBN-100545509939 (Scholastic)

ISBN-13: 978-0545509930 (Scholastic)

Reviewed by: Kelly


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?

Quick & Dirty: It’s clear that Shecter has done her research and enjoys writing about ancient civilizations. Curses and Smoke features some impressive plot twists and is overflowing with vivid descriptions of what life might’ve been like in Pompeii. Details like the types of food available to a patrician household, the religious rituals and the Greek vocabulary effectively bring the story’s setting to life. Regrettably, the only issue I had was that the abrupt delivery made me feel more like I was reading an assignment for a class than a passionate tale of two young people exploring a forbidden love.

Opening Sentence: Lucia was sure that the white-haired gentleman reclining on the dining couch before her would make a delightful grandfather.


The Review:

Lucia and Tag may live in the same space, but their realities are worlds apart.

As the only surviving child of the owner of a small gladiatorial school in Pompeii, Lucia has never given much thought to the slaves that make her life comfortable. She opts instead to devote much of her time studying the world around her, documenting what she sees and forming hypothesis about what is happening. That is until her father decides to marry her off to the highest bidder, a man from Rome who is at least three times her age and who certainly won’t allow her to indulge in her favorite pastime. Knowing that she has no control over her life, she instead chooses to spend the last few weeks of relative freedom getting reacquainted with Tag – one of her oldest friends who’s just returned to the school after being sent away following her mother’s death several years earlier.

Tag has never had choices. As a medical slave for the gladiatorial school, his life is dependent on a man who’d willingly kill him for something that happened when Tag was just a child. The only reason he’s been allowed to return is because the school is buying more gladiator slaves with the money from Lucia’s marriage and Tag’s father can no longer keep up with providing care for the fighters. He dreams only of two things that will never happen – winning his freedom in the gladiator arena and running away with the beautiful daughter of the man who owns him.

What begins as an act of rebellion for Lucia quickly develops into something more between them. Lucia’s privileged life means she doesn’t understand many of the dangers they face, but Tag does. He risks his life – and his elderly father’s – every time he’s alone with her. She’s been sheltered from every cruelty, especially her father’s, and Tag knows that their plan to run away together will never survive the reality of the world they live in. When Tag’s predictions begin to come true, the most unlikely solution becomes their only hope for survival.

Though the fate of Pompeii was kind of a given, I couldn’t help but hope for a happy ending for these two crazy kids.

Shecter did an impressive job turning Lucia into a sympathetic character even though she doesn’t change very much. The Lucia at the end of the story doesn’t fight for slave rights, doesn’t begin a campaign to free the slaves in her household or even really regret the life of comfort the slaves have provided for her. She is a girl who learns some hard lessons but comes out fiercely fighting for Tag and the chance at a guaranteed tough life ahead of them. Tag wasn’t as hopeful for their future, but it didn’t make him an unlikeable character. Unlike Lucia, he was used to thinking about the well-being of others. He had a lot to lose – a lot more than Lucia – and I couldn’t fault his determination to keep those he cared about safe from their choices.

Overall, this story reminded me of the time my high school English teacher had us watch the movie Clash of the Titans (the original one with the really bad Claymation and not the CGI remake with the infinitely more attractive Sam Worthington). Everyone in class was excited because 1) it was three glorious lecture-free days to pass notes under the cover of relative darkness; and 2) I kept hoping the male character’s toga would ride up or fall off completely when battling the myriad of baddies. Though I didn’t truly care at the time, the movie wasn’t a random choice. It coincided with our study of ancient Greek writers like Homer and was meant to enhance our understanding of themes like the hero’s journey. Chances are low I ever would’ve watched the original Clash of the Titans if it hadn’t been for that class. The character’s appearance, the mythology, even the language portrayed in the film would’ve been too outside my realm of understanding to fully appreciate if I hadn’t already been studying the time period.

I had a similar issue with Curses and Smoke. Generally, I enjoy historical fiction and the more authentic an author can make a story the better. Even though Shecter included a supplement documenting the historical context to satisfy people like me, I really would’ve appreciated a glossary of Greek terminology. Of course I was able to deduct the meaning of Domina but doing so weakened the fictional bubble that Shecter worked so hard to create through vivid descriptions.

A second issue I had is something that is strictly a personal preference and has nothing to do with how well the story was written. Telling the story in both Lucia and Tag’s voices was an effective way to prove just how different their lives were because of their statuses. However, the dual point of view resulted in an abrupt change that interrupted the story’s momentum every time I began a new chapter. Again, this is a personal preference but you may want to pass if you feel the same way about stories written in a dual point of view.

Otherwise, Curses and Smoke is an interesting story for readers who want a PG story within a historical context.

Notable Scene:

She stopped. “You hate my father that much?”

He ran a hand through his curls. “Do you want me to answer that honestly?”

“But all of your needs are met, aren’t they? You’re educated, clothed, you don’t suffer from hunger, you have a roof over your head, the respect of the other slaves –“

His eyes grew wide. “Are you suggesting that I should be happy to be a slave? That I should count my blessings rather than fight for the freedom that was stolen dishonorably from my family? Just because I am fed and watered and sometimes whipped like a dog – like Minos?”


FTC Advisory: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic provided me with a copy of Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii. No goody bags, sponsorships, “material connections,” or bribes were exchanged for my review.


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