(Cover picture courtesy of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.)
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?
[Full disclosure: I received a free paperback from the publisher in exchange for an honest review during the book tour.]
One of the things that struck me about Vicky Alvear Shecter’s first book, Cleopatra’s Moon was the historical accuracy. She is an excellent writer when it comes to putting little historical details into her writing to give it that authentic feel. In this novel she’s even better because there are detailed descriptions of the medical practices, gladiator training and even the current political climate. That’s not really something you expect from a book aimed at the younger YA demographic (13 to about 15) so I was quite impressed.
Her characters were good, but I didn’t take a particular shine to either of the leads. Lucia is quite naive, as would be expected from her upbringing, but she never really gets any better either. She still doesn’t know when to speak and when to keep her mouth shut, which is pretty frustrating for me. Still, she’s a well developed character and you really get the feeling that she is the product of her upbringing. Tag (short for Tages) is far more interesting with his medical knowledge and his desire to become a gladiator to buy his freedom. That could be because I’m a sucker for the underdog in stories but whatever. In the end, all of the characters Vicky Alvear Shecter writes about are well-developed and have believable motivations demonstrated through their actions.
The plot was quite well done in terms of pacing. There’s this slow build-up to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and you can see how all of the signs of an eruption were there before from animals acting crazy to wells drying up. Of course no one knew what was going on at the time so it was quite suspenseful for Lucia to slowly discover all of the signs before reaching her ultimate, terrifying conclusion. The only thing I didn’t like about the plot was how it ended. It was a little too melodramatic and the magical curse element seemed to come practically out of nowhere. Looking back, I really think this book would have been better without the random curse that shows up about halfway into the book. It just seems random and tries to add to the overall tension but really doesn’t.
In general, I think Curses and Smoke is a pretty good novel. I don’t think it’s as good as Cleopatra’s Moon but I’d recommend it to young readers 13 to 15.
I give this book 3.5/5 stars.