Wednesday, July 20, 2016

671 (2016 #26). Curses and Smoke

by Vicky Alvear Shecter
read by Marisol Ramirez and Zach Villa

Subtitled "A Novel of Pompeii," this book is set in A.D. 79, the year the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the city.

The book's chapters alternate between the two main characters, Lucia and Tages (Tag).  Tag is a young male slave trained in medicine, to help his aging father treat the valuable gladiators owned and trained by Lucius Titurius.  He toys with the thought of becoming a gladiator himself and possibly fighting his way to freedom.

Lucia is Titurius' only surviving child.  Her older brother, baby sisters, and mother all died.  She is well educated and interested in the world around her, particularly in the writings of Pliny.  She longs to discuss with him her observations of strange happenings around Pompeii - such springs drying up, tremors, animals behaving strangely, and a sulfur smell in the air.  As the book opens, she is being betrothed to a man old enough to be her grandfather, all for the money he promises her father to support his school.

Tag and Lucia are childhood friends who haven't seen each other in three years, while Tag was in Rome for more medical training.  Naturally they fall in love.  They plan to run away together.  Naturally the eruption of Vesuvius intervenes.

Author Vicky Alvear Shecter does a masterful job with the setting, weaving in all sorts of historical details of the location and life in that era.  Freedom is a major theme in the book, along with class distinctions, forbidden love, and family and master/slave relationships.  Given that this is a young adult novel aimed at ages 12-17, I felt the romance was age-appropriate.  The book's (surprising) ending, though, might be difficult for a younger reader to handle.

On the audiobook, actors Marisol Ramirez and Zach Villa read the third-person sections written from the viewpoints of Lucia and Tag respectively in the book.  I liked having two readers, male and female, but I found Villa's delivery to be a little flat and monotone at times.

Unfortunately, the e-audiobook I listened to did not include the detailed author's note that is apparently at the end of the print book, which gives the history of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, including different theories about when it actually happened; facts about Roman culture and practices; information about gladiators; and discussion of the inspiration for certain characters.  I have to wonder, for example, if Lucia's pregnant friend Cornelia was inspired by some of the remains found at Pompeii.  I'm going to have to borrow a print copy of the book just to find out. (ETA:  I did borrow a print copy, and the answer to that question is yes.  Lucia's dog was also so inspired.)  And like all good historical fiction, this one has inspired me to learn more about Pompeii, Pliny, and Vesuvius.

© Amanda Pape - 2016

[This electronic audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library consortium collection.]

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