Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii

Common Sense Media says

Riveting action, romance amid gladiators in Pompeii.





What parents need to know

Educational value

Kids learn about the signs of volcanic activity and a great deal about ancient Roman society, including the religions and traditions of the time. Because the information is simply a part of the world the characters live in, the active learning piece is not very apparent, though unfamiliar terms are italicized for reference. 

Positive messages

Strong messages about friendship and honor. 

Positive role models

Characters display positive attributes, and even when they make mistakes, they're shown learning from them. The two main characters question their prescribed roles in society, providing a commentary on the societal impact of the rules they must follow.


There's a fair amount of violence. This should come as no surprise, considering the main setting is the shadow of an erupting volcano and a gladiator school. There's fighting/training among the gladiators, who use a variety of weaponry. There's also violence against slaves, who are whipped or speak of being beaten. Additionally, a woman is slapped, and infants are described as being left to die from exposure outside the city walls. Several people are killed as a result of a fight, a fall, and a suicide; thousands more are killed because of a natural disaster.


Although no sexual acts are described in detail, there are many mentions of sex throughout the book. One woman, described as being pregnant, recounts her passionate married life with her husband. Another woman worries about being forced to marry and have sex with an extremely undesirable and possibly violent suitor. A male slave is sold to be used for sex. Two lovers kiss often and sleep together but don't have sex. A man describes being unable to see his "girlfriend" marry another man and go to his "bed." There also are passing discussions of sexual impropriety among various characters.


Language is not really a problem in this novel. There are some occasional swear words, but they're mostly ancient slang. There's some mild name-calling.

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

There are some allusions to drunkenness. A few times, men are shown as being drunk and passing out. Most of the references to alcohol are about medicinal use. 

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Vicky Alvear Shecter's Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii is definitely for older children. There are instances of suicide, infanticide, slavery, and murder. These topics may spark discussions about current topics, including the treatment of women and girls around the world, religion, abortion, suicide, slavery, and homosexuality. There's also an opportunity for discussion about climate change.

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What's the story?

Lucia is the daughter of a moderately wealthy gladiator-school owner. Lucia's family carries the stigma of its association with a less-than-desirable profession, and, to gain both money and prestige, she has to contend with an engagement to a horrible but rich old man. She prays to the gods to remove her from the situation, but the gods seem preoccupied with something else. Something is pulsating just below the surface of the town, and everyone is on edge. What Lucia doesn't know is that her escape will come but from an unexpected and forgotten source. Will help arrive in time? And will Lucia find the strength to help herself?

Is it any good?


Author Vicky Alvear Shecter has done a terrific job of recreating what life was like in the ancient Roman town of Pompeii and completely reimagines the events leading up to and following the destruction of the town. Within the first few pages, readers are immersed in the sights, sounds, and even smells of Pompeii -- and in the life of Lucia. The characters Shecter has created leap off the page, grab readers, and drag them along for the ride. 

Parents and older kids will love the action and the romance in this true page-turner as they hold their breath for what's coming next. Everyone knows that the volcano explodes, but Shecter still manages to wrangle out a few surprises. Although she hits upon some deep issues -- including slavery, suicide, infanticide, murder, and sexual assault -- the book is not too sophisticated for most older kids and teens. In fact, it can help kick off discussions of those topics as they relate to events happening around the world today.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the way women are portrayed and treated in the novel and how it compares with the treatment of women and girls around the world today. Can you think of any examples in the media that portray women as weaker than men? Can you give examples of a media story wherein women are shown as equal to men? How do these media stories impact the way people think?

  • Families also can talk about the role of science in the novel. Which warning signs does Lucia notice that could have helped the citizens of Pompeii? Can you think of current weather events or other natural phenomena that may be warning signs of climate change? Why is it important to observe the natural world around you?

  • Curses and Smoke is a story about Roman citizens and their gods. How are those gods similar to those in other religious stories?

Book details

Author:Vicky Alvear Shecter
Genre:Historical Fiction
Topics:Great boy role models, Great girl role models, History, Misfits and underdogs
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Arthur A. Levine
Publication date:May 21, 2014
Number of pages:336
Publisher's recommended age(s):12 - 17
Available on:Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle

This review of Curses and Smoke: A Novel of Pompeii was written by

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  • ON: Content is age-appropriate for kids this age.
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  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Parent Written bytooprecious April 7, 2015

Not appropriate for 12yrs of age!

Talking about sex in a book is not 12yrs of age appropriate!
What other families should know
Too much sex


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