Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication Date: May 27, 2014
Rating: 3 stars
Source: ARC borrowed from a friend (thank you, Lena!)
Summary (from Goodreads):
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?
What I Liked:
I'm perfectly split on this book. I don't know if I liked it or disliked it, but that makes sense with the rating, right? I was super excited to read this book, when I first heard of it, because I LOVE the story of the destruction of Pompeii/the eruption of Vesuvius - it's always fascinated me. I love history in general, and historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. I had high hopes for this book, especially since it was placed during one of my favorite historical events.
Lucia will be married soon, to an elderly man not of her choosing. She will leave Pompeii in a month, a married woman with no future of her own. And no romance - no Tag. She and Tag fall in love during this book, but it seems hopeless, since Tag is a slave, and she is his owner's daughter. But it's not just the romance that is important in this book - Lucia has been noticing strange things in nature. Things are vibrating, with no wind or shaking. There are more and more tremors in the earth. But no one wants to listen to Lucia's theories.
You'll see in the next section that I had a few problems with the "forbidden" part of the romance, but if you take "forbidden" out of "forbidden romance", then I had no problem with this romance. I really liked seeing Tag and Lucia fall in love - it was sweet and beautiful and a tiny bit heartbreaking. Honestly, I wanted to see more scenes featuring the two of them, more sneaking around, more slow-burn romance, but I liked the romance that was featured. Poor Lucia, for being given away to the richest man possible. Poor Tag, for being a slave and not being able to follow his heart.
Something that I really enjoyed about this book was the treatment of the historical aspect. I thought it was really great to see a different time period in history featured (not Edwardian or Victorian England, for example), especially one such as this one, during the time of the eruption of Vesuvius. Shecter incorporates Roman traditions such as the fighting of gladiators, the use of slaves, the sexism, and so on, to increase the authenticity of this book. Roman and Greek words are scattered throughout the novel (Greek in terms of the medical practices), which was awesome. I always analyze historical fiction novels in terms of their authenticity, and this book wasn't bad. See below though.
The plot of the book wasn't absolutely amazing, but I liked the story in general. The ending made me sad, but I was actually hoping for something worse, so I'm not sure if I would have preferred "my" ending, or the one the author created. I think this is a standalone novel, but I'm not sure (Goodreads doesn't mention a series, but in the title of this book is "A Novel of Pompeii", so…). I don't know how I would feel if this book were part of a series.
What I Did Not Like:
I think my expectations for this book were too high. I built this one up in my head, so when I read it, and it wasn't all that I wanted or expected, I was disappointed. I mean, it's not really my fault - I know a lot about Pompeii and Vesuvius (it's one of my favorite disasters in history), so I was really excited to see how this author would take this event and spin it into a love story. I'm not a huge fan of forbidden romance, but occasionally, a love story with forbidden love will catch my eye and twist my heart and I'll love it. I was hoping that this book would have that romance.
It didn't. I admit, I love the romance between Tag and Lucia, and I was totally rooting for them throughout the book, but for some reason, I wasn't feeling the "forbidden" aspect. Yes, he is a slave, and she is a domina, but for some reason, their relationship really didn't feel forbidden. I think the roman could have been drawn out more, in which they did more sneaking around or something. The forbidden aspect wasn't all there, and so, while the romance was great, it didn't have that edge that I was expecting. Keep in mind, this book is extremely short, for a Young Adult novel. That could have something to do with the lack of the forbidden aspect.
I also felt like the overall plot of this book was very dry and vague. Lucia had been noticing things in nature that weren't adding up, things that weren't quite natural, but no one would listen to her. Meanwhile, she's being sold off to the highest bidder (in terms of her marriage), so there's that. But she and Tag rekindle their friendship when Tag is sent back to Lucia's household to work as a medic. The friendship becomes romance. For some reason, the story and plot of this book didn't really have a spark. It didn't feel like time was running out, or that something enormous was going to happen by the end of the book. Meaning, there wasn't anything telling me that everything was coming down to the end of the book. We as readers already know that Vesuvius erupts, covering Pompeii, but I feel like Shecter didn't do a good enough job of foreshadowing this.
Like, Lucia was noticing the vibrations in the earth and whatnot, but it didn't feel like something was going to happen. You might think, oh, this could be a good thing, because then when something happens, SURPRISE! But when the climax DID come around, it was very… anticlimactic. I wasn't feeling it. Something at the VERY end happens that I didn't really expect, and that broke my heart a little bit.
Yeah. So. The climax is one thing. The ending is entirely another thing. I expected it, in a way, but not WHO. I'm trying to be super vague, but basically, the ending caught me off guard. I dislike it. I was expecting something else, because, you know, the entire city got covered. Well. I don't know if this book is part of a series, but I probably won't read the rest of the books in the series BECAUSE of this ending. Unless the books are companion novels. Then, maybe.
The speech is a bit anachronistic, in my opinion. I always look out for anachronisms, in historical fiction novels, and there are definitely modern-day colloquial phrases in this novel. I know that the author wants to make it easier for her audience to read a historical fiction novel, and that's great, but clean up the twenty-first century phrases, would you?
Would I Recommend It:
Hmm, even if you're a historical fiction fan, I can't say I'd really recommend this book. It doesn't really stick out to me as an AMAZING, awe-inspiring historical fiction novel, though I wanted it to be one. I wanted more from this book, but wasn't all that I expected. There wasn't anything remarkable or distinguishing about this book, unfortunately. You could skip this one and you wouldn't be missing out.
3 stars. I enjoyed this book, and I really like the historical aspect of this book (this time period is one of my favorites), but I wanted more from this book. I don't think this book is part of a series (I have no idea though), but from the way this one ended, I don't think my heart could take it if I read more books from this series. Unless they were companion novels. Then, maybe.
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