Friday, 25 April 2014

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

Since this title was announced on Scholastic's 2014 summer list, I have been anxious to get my hands on an ARC. I minored in Classical Studies, with emphasis on Etruscan and Roman civilizations, so this book is basically literary gold for me. I am obsessed with anything to do with Roman history; it's fascinating, and this book did not disappoint me!

Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii by Vicky Alvear Shecter will be published on May 27, 2014 by Arthur A. Levine Books (a division of Scholastic Inc). It is a YA novel centred on the forbidden love affair of a young aristocratic girl and a slave, who works as a healer at her father's gladiatorial school. Their love affair, a scandalous relationship, escalates up to climax of the novel: the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii in 79 AD.

For those of you who aren't as embarrassingly nerdy as I am, Pompeii and Herculaneum are two fascinating ancient sites. Unlike other Roman archaeological sites, these two cities tell us so much about the way people lived. The eruption covered everything--people, houses, animals, jewelry, household items--in ash and molten rock, preserving the city exactly as it was when the volcano erupted.

Images: Above: Pompeiian ruins. Below left: a dog, below right: multiple bodies found in the wreckage.

This novel is a great YA historical read, though it's not "historical" in the sense of accuracy (this isn't a Rick Riordan novel!). There are many inaccuracies and anachronisms, but I am forgiving in this instance. I think it's more important to get kids reading and to get them interested in learning more about history, than it is to accurate.

I do have an ARC, so I'm hoping the mistake of using the Greek name Poseidon won't show up in the finished copy. Furthermore, the language is very modern and there is minimal use of cultural terminology or Latin words. You don't need knowledge of Roman history to be able to enjoy the book.

The forbidden love story is a great angle from which to tell the story. Aside from what the eruption was like, there is a lot of historical information that readers will gain from reading. Property ownership, slavery and the treatment of slaves, women's rights, gladiator schools, medical practices, class division, and true Roman practices such as exposure (discarding unwanted newborn infants) and marriage are all important tropes. Also, the author incorporates a fabulous comparison of pregnancy/birth with the eruption of the volcano. They are the same; the birth of a baby is a violent and potentially fatal moment, as is the eruption of a volcano, which is the violent and lethal birthing of nature.

There are two major twists at the end that had me turning the pages as fast as I could. This, combined with the excitement of the volcano raining down on the city, makes this book a huge success for me.
This is a heart-stopping story of survival, of forbidden love, and of a terrifying natural disaster.

Shecter does an exceptional job of balancing history with fiction, presenting both in such a way that is appealing to YA readers. There isn't any gore and the book isn't frightening; it is subtly educational and certainly exciting!

Curses and Smoke gets 4 stars from me. I appreciate the hell out of an author who will get the younger generations interested in ancient civilizations! I also appreciate that there is a YA alternative to the hype around Pompeii in 2014 with Pompeii the movie, and the subsequent attention on the book from which it was adapted: Richard Harris' Pompeii.

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