Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter – Book Review

My book review is on the amazing story Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii
. Curses and Smoke
 is a 311 paged book by Vicky Alvear Shecter.   This book takes place long ago when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in Pompeii.  This detailed book is the fast-paced adventure of two young teens aching to break free.  Both enslaved in their own ways, both looking for the right opportunity to break out.  However, neither of them thought their ticket to freedom would come in the form it had.

The first chapter in the book is narrated by the young teen, Lucia Titurius. “Lucia was sure that the white-haired gentlemen reclining on the dinner couch would make a delightful grandfather. As a future husband, though, he left a great deal to be desired.” Lucia is a bright, young, and caring girl who loves science. She often reads books by Pliny, an illustrious geologist.  After her mother died, she’s had trouble persuading her father to buy any of Pliny’s new books, an unfortunate problem for Lucia.  As she reads some of Pliny’s old books, she realizes that there may be an earthquake coming along.  In reality, she seems like the only wealthy lady who realizes the true signs of these frequent and catastrophic tremors.  Though that may sound like a major problem, her real problem is that she is being sold off to a wealthy grandpa who needs a new play toy. She doesn’t want to move to Rome, where her betrothed lives.  She wishes to stay in Pompeii, her hometown, to stay close to her best friends. She wants to marry because she chooses too, not because her father needs the money for his failing gladiator school. Her version of free is the freedom of choice.  Her only path to freedom would be to run away, and her life in Pompeii to vanish from her memories. So what is holding her back?

Then there is Tag.  A poor boy literally enslaved by the Titurius household.  For the past 3 years, he has been in Rome, learning to be a gladiator and hoping to win a fight in the future.  Then suddenly he is called back to Pompeii, for a reason unknown to him until he reaches the household. He serves the Titurius household by being a medicus, a doctor that treats gladiators.  When he reaches the household, he meets a boy named Castor.  Whenever Castor goes near Tag’s father (another medicus), his father believes that Castor is Tag.  That’s when Tag realizes that his father’s sight is failing.  What will Tag do, when his apa (father) is thrown out of the household because he is of no use anymore? For a slave to win their freedom without their Dominus’s (master) permission in Pompeii, they must win in a gladiator fight. Tag hopes to win someday, and take his father to freedom as well. To Tag, freedom simply means not being owned by another man. To be able to live a happy life with his dear ones. So what is holding him back?

In the mist of it all, there is Lucia’s best friend Cornelia, who is pregnant, Quintus, a wealthy man that supposedly falls for Lucia, and Tag’s chance to be trained as an actual gladiator and win his freedom.  When Tag meets Lucia in the cave they had built as children, a forbidden love takes place.  For Tag and Lucia, the boundaries between the rich and the poor, the domina (mistress) and the slave are forgotten.  When they make hidden plans to leave and claim the amazing life that they so badly want, their plans fail. Who will look after Tag’s father, will he be beaten to death?  What will happen to Castor, a unique boy that Lucia and Tag have grown so fond of as mater (mother) and apa (father)?  If you don’t solve the mystery of these  severe tremors, are you betraying your city, your hometown, your friends?  How can Lucia and Tag be so selfish and take so many risks, for their loved ones?  A volcano’s eruption as an escape, however, is a risky and the ingenious perfect plan for Tag and Lucia.  The only real risk, is what if they can’t make it?

I give this book a five/five rating.  A story with twists at every corner, and a completely unpredictable ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say that the ending isn’t exactly happily ever after. There are many pages of detail, but unlike my last book review, the details and feelings written down are amazing and doesn’t end with snooze fest plastered everywhere.  Each thought sparks a new question, a different and crazy emotion, and a totally unexpected outcome. It has a sad ending, but even then, the ending doesn’t answer all my questions, and it forms new ones too.  I always thought the best book isn’t the one with a happy ending, it is the one that keeps you awake at night wondering what might have happened to the characters, but doesn’t leave you completely hungry for the next book so you can find out.  It’ll let you create the ending that you want to happen. Curses and Smoke can be sappy from time to time, but I think that is the beauty of this totally amazing story.

The Ending of Curses and Smoke

“Almost there,” he half-whispered and half-croaked to the sleeping child.

But Castor had not been sleeping. He raised his head and looked up at Tag.

“Are we still free?” he whispered.

It was a long time before Tag could answer through the jagged rock of grief lodged in his throat. He would never be free of the sorrow and regret of losing her. But he knew that was not what the boy meant.

“Yes,” he answered finally. “She set us free.”

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