Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fascination with volcanos and ancient Rome

Ancient Rome is one of my most favorite time periods to visit in historical fiction, with all the drama of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, the slave rebellion of Spartacus, the chariot races of Ben Hur, Pontius Pilate "washing his hands of this", the destruction of Jerusalem, the seige of Masada, the gladiators of the Colosseum, and all the scheming and backstabbing immortalized in I, Claudius (such a good book!)

In the midst of all this dramatic history was a particularly vivid and frightening moment, the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii (79 AD). Most of us know the horror left behind by the pyroclastic surge of that volcano: bodies forever frozen in positions of agony. I'm surprised I haven't run across historical fiction set in Pompeii before, but as soon as I heard about Curses and Smoke, released last month, I snatched it up.
Obviously not the eruption of Vesuvius, but the
pyroclastic cloud of death might be similar
This young adult story was rich with historical and cultural details, and I luxuriated in them like my own historical hot tub. This book truly transports you back in time: not just the setting, but the food, the attitudes of slaves, lanistas, gladiators, patricians; beauty rituals; curse tablets; natural history (references to Strabo and Pliny); beautiful Latin ("deliciae meae"); ancient medical treatments...even graffiti on the market walls. (Also LOVED that the author included historical notes at the back of the book.)

The point of view switches between Lucia, a daughter of a rich owner of gladiators, and betrothed against her will, and Tages, a slave, and also a medicus (healer).  

How I pictured Lucia
Lucia has a knack for scientific observations and longs to share her theories about Vesuvius with Pliny (a famous naturalist and writer). But she faces scorn from other Romans because she's just a woman, therefore her theories are automatically discounted. 

While basically a forbidden love story, this story surprised me with two unexpected twists: one with Lucia's mother and father (please read the historical note in the back about the letter from a husband to his wife that inspired this shocker!), and the other with Quintus, the spoiled rich patrician who flirts with Lucia but is... ah, that would be a spoiler. 

Each chapter heading includes a countdown, starting with One Month Before and ending with Minutes Before. Such a simple but effective way to heighten tension. But there's a surprise twist with this countdown, too. 

My favorite quote:
They promenaded around the market, occasionally stealing glances at each other as they chatted about the household. Sometimes they bumped shoulders or brushed arms. Lucia felt as if all her awareness and sensation were gravitating toward Tag like iron to a magnet rock. She wondered how the weight of it didn't make her tip over into him.

Definitely a Caesar's thumbs up for this book: 

And, since the movie Gladiator is one of my favorites, I just had to throw in my favorite quote from that movie, too. 

What's your favorite historical fiction or  favorite period from history? 


  1. Gladiators is one of my favorites too. Just re-watched it with my son last week. Some friends we know are touring Italy for three weeks, just left yesterday, and experiencing all that history and culture first hand. How awesome.

  2. Wow. I LOVE it when a historical fiction really does its job well. I don't have a favorite time period. I'm fascinated by all of them. Seriously. If I could get that time machine functioning again I'd chronicle them all and show the world how incredible each era was. ;)

  3. I'm a big California Gold Rush fan when it comes to an historical period. But I'd read anything about the great days of Pompeii. When I visited that city, I couldn't shake the feeling that the ghosts had never left.

  4. Love the idea of the chapter-by-chapter countdown! Talk about upping the tension! My favorite all time historical fiction is M.M. Kaye's The Far Pavilions. Gorgeous and moving. So, SO good!



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