- Virginia Johnson
Lucia is furious with her father. As paterfamilias, head of his Roman household, gladiator-trainer Lucius has chosen her rich husband for her. Lucia fumes to herself that aged, grumpy Vitulus would do very well as a grandfather--but not as her bridegroom! Their loathsome, formal dinner together is cut short by the sounds of a cracking whip and the rumblings of the Earth. Somewhere nearby a slave is being punished, Mount Vesuvius is gathering strength to explode. Vicky Alvear Shecter’s romantic novel, Curses and Smoke, is set in Pompeii's dangerous last days when anything, even forbidden love, might be possible.
Tag was the one being whipped. Handsome but scowling, he had dared look his master in the eye. Having just returned from gladiator training in Rome, he hoped to earn his freedom fighting in the arena but that seemed unlikely. He was needed as a medicus, a doctor, for he had learned much from his father, and his father’s health was failing. As a doctor, there was no chance for freedom, but if fortune favored him he might get a chance to train as a gladiator. All his plans are set aside, though, when he sees Lucia.
Domina, he is supposed to call her. Lady. He is not supposed to meet her eyes, either, but Tag and Lucia have known each other since they were children. Best friends then, but now there is something more between them. They should not let themselves be swept away by it. Lucia’s fate is sealed, and if Tag is caught with her, he will be whipped –almost- unto death. Certainly he will be maimed. Lucius would have killed him long ago were it not for the curse he carries.
Meanwhile, beneath their feet the rumblings grow more insistent and menacing. Chapters with headings such as “One Month Before” and much later “The Day Before” add to the tension. There’s a whole interweaving of lives on Pompeii. No one really knows when and or even if the volcano will explode. Everyone has daily business of his or her own, be they lords or be they slaves. Although Lucia and Tag are somewhat concerned about the world beneath them, the only doom that seems certain is that they are to be separated.
Curses and Smoke is an excellent story with first-rate historical detail. Whether readers are interested in gladiatorial combat or the life of a privileged Roman girl, they will be satisfied with the author’s world-building. Even so, the main story of star-crossed lovers shines, making this an excellent choice for both young adults and adults.