Monday, November 10, 2014

A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn & Vicky Alvear Shecter

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Read: October 31, 2014

Pompeii was a lively resort flourishing in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius at the height of the Roman Empire. When Vesuvius erupted in an explosion of flame and ash, the entire town would be destroyed. Some of its citizens died in the chaos, some escaped the mountain's wrath... and these are their stories: A boy loses his innocence in Pompeii's flourishing streets. An heiress dreads her wedding day, not knowing it will be swallowed by fire. An ex-legionary stakes his entire future on a gladiator bout destined never to be finished. A crippled senator welcomes death, until a tomboy on horseback comes to his rescue. A young mother faces an impossible choice for her unborn child as the ash falls. A priestess and a whore seek redemption and resurrection as the town is buried. Six authors bring to life overlapping stories of patricians and slaves, warriors and politicians, villains and heroes who cross each others' path during Pompeii's fiery end. But who will escape, and who will be buried for eternity?

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Cast from the Garden of the Fugitives
Image by Daniele Florio
I have a hard time with anthologies and collaborations, but Grand Central proved such a wonderful experience that I swore I'd keep an open mind if another struck my fancy. Four months later A Day of Fire caught my eye and here I sit, once again amazed at the result.

Taking their cues from the graffiti littered walls of its ruins, these six authors set out to tell the story of a city's final moments, to chronicle the tragedy of Vesuvius' first century eruption through the experience of her citizens as a torrent of rock, pumice and fire rained hell from above.

Their characters come from all walks of life and offer extensive insight to the intricacies of life in the Roman Empire, but it is the drama they imagined and the intrigue they coaxed from the ashes that make A Day of Fire impossible to put down. From the Herculaneum Gate to the Garden of the Fugitives, their combined efforts culminate in a highly compelling portrait of Pompeii and her people.

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The Son by Vicky Alvear Shecter
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I liked Vicky Alvear Shecter's Curses and Smoke, but I loved The Son. I'll grant comparing a young adult piece to general fiction is an apples to oranges association, but the tone of the contribution, the mature nature of its themes and the dynamic Shecter created between Gaius Caecilius and Gaius Plinius Secundus really appealed to me.

Those familiar with the history know how significant Gaius Caecilius is to Pompeii which is why I got such a kick out of Shecter's portrayal. Far from the respected historian, here is seventeen year old boy, plagued with insecurities and grappling with his first taste of romance. The resulting contrast is both authentic and amusing and represents a creativity I can't help but admire.

“Here’s a secret few men will admit out loud. On the inside, most of us feel small, stupid, and weak no matter what our size or how old we are. You become a man when you realize none of that matters. Only what we do matters. A man of Rome will do his duty even when he feels broken inside.”

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The Heiress by Sophie Perinot
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It's been a few years since I tackled Sophie Perinot's The Sister Queens, but The Heiress reminded me why I hold its author in such high esteem. Taking inspiration from the frescos that grace the Villa dei Misteri, Perinot delves into the wedding traditions of ancient Rome and presents a surprisingly nontraditional love story that cuts straight to the heart.  

I wasn't sure about Aemilia Lepida, but the passion she harbors for Faustus quickly showed her as more than the poor little rich girl she initially appears to be and I adored the parallel Perinot created in Aemilia's experience and the famous imagery that graces her walls. That said, it was Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus that made the greatest impression on me. A historic figure of no particular importance, the highly educated would-be aedile proved my favorite of all the characters that appear in A Day of Fire.  

“You were born in fire, Aemilia, but by all the gods I will not let you die in it.” The words come out half spoken, half growled. The last thing I see as he carries me off is the shocked faces of the serving women with their hands full of my clothing.

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The Soldier by Ben Ken
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I selfishly hoped Ben Kane would tackle the gladiators and the Amphitheatre of Pompeii when I realized he'd contributed to this project and I'm happy to report I wasn't disappointed. I mean no offense to the other authors, but after reading Spartacus: Rebellion, I felt Kane and his particular expertise best suited for the material. 

The action in the arena was brilliantly done, but I loved how Kane balanced the physicality of those sequences against the everyday politics of life in Pompeii. Career soldier Lucius Satrius Rufus has enemies both on and off the field and I thought the illustration of his personal relationships and how those affiliations dictated his decisions during the eruption quite fascinating. 

“You and me, Sir, we’ve seen things as bad as this. If the damn Germans couldn’t kill us, I don’t see why a bloody great mountain should.” 

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The Senator by Kate Quinn
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I've read enough of her work to know that sitting down with anything by Kate Quinn will leave a smile on my face. Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome and Empress of the Seven Hills have graced my top shelf for some time so I was understandably excited about The Senator, but I readily admit Quinn's eye for historic detail and keen sense of comedic timing surpassed even my expectations.

Diana of the Cornelii and Senator Marcus Norbanus are a phenomenal pairing and while I have a sneaky suspicion their contrary personalities would prove entertaining just about anywhere, I took particular amusement at watching them butt heads in the 
Lupanar of Pompeii. I harbored a fondness for these characters prior to reading A Day of Fire and adored the insight this small chapter afforded, but more than that, I appreciated how seamlessly their story fit with the other contributions. All the entries are linked, but I felt Quinn's effort the most coordinated and comprehensive of the collection.  

One was big and the other was bigger; they had blood on their arms and blood on their shins; they had rough voices and white around their eyes. They might have been porters or fullers; legionaries or farmers; citizens or slaves—there were no such defined differences between men anymore, not now. In Pompeii there were only the dead, the dying, and the desperate.

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The Mother by E. Knight
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Historically, the home of Julius Polybius is one of the most impressive and enlightening buildings buried in the volcanic ash of Vesuvius, but the pregnant woman who died there is equally intriguing. A cameo character in several of the earlier contributions, Julilla finally enjoys the spotlight in E. Knight's The Mother. 

Maybe it's because Anne Seymour was such a firecracker in My Lady Viper, but I associate Knight with the creation of vibrant and passionate heroines which is why I was confused by the happily married and contented Julilla. Eagerly awaiting the birth of her child, the soon-to-be mother radiates maternal joy, but didn't fit the mold I'd envisioned. At least, not initially. As the situation worsens, Julilla's soul-searching reveals an uncommonly complex woman torn by loyalty, honor, expectation, duty, and a desire to be at the forefront of the decisions that determine her fate. 

What was once a place of tranquility is now blanketed in darkness and ash. The sky above is a reflection of a war with the gods. Is it possible that the end of the world is upon us?

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The Whore by Stephanie Dray
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None of those who contributed to A Day of Fire were unfamiliar to me. I've fond memories of reading many of their solo efforts, including Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran who supplied the introduction to the six part novel. That said, author Stephanie Dray was something of an anomaly within the group. I've followed her on social media for years, but I've not read her work and so approached The Whore with fresh and entirely unbiased objectivity. 

Considering her background it should come as no surprise that Dray's story incorporated the Temple of Isis and a spiritual connection to the Egyptian goddess, but it was the personal reflections of Capella and Prima that captured my imagination. The sisters are as different as night and day, but their trials comprise some of the most powerful moments and intimate revelations of the entire book. 

No, Isis loves me like an immortal mother who knows that all her mortal children must die. If not in this moment, then the next. For what is a year, a decade, a lifetime, but mere moments to a goddess older than time? She loves us for what we make of our moments. And Isis loves me for a strength I did not know was inside me before.
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Check Out All the Stops on the A Day of Fire Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, October 27
Review at The Maiden’s Court
Wednesday, October 29
Spotlight at Passages to the Past
Thursday, October 30
Review at
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Monday, November 3
Review at Bibliophilia, Please
Wednesday, November 5
Review at Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, November 10
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, November 12
Review at With Her Nose Stuck in a Book
Thursday, November 13
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Tuesday, November 18
Spotlight at Historical Fiction Connection
Wednesday, November 19
Review at Book Babe
Tuesday, November 25
Review at Reading the Past
Wednesday, November 26
Guest Post at Historical Tapestry
Friday, November 28
Review at The True Book Addict
Monday, December 1
Guest Post at From the TBR Pile
Thursday, December 4
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Friday, December 5
Review at Let Them Read Books

1 comment:

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Pompeii and its history have always fascinated me. I'm not familiar with all of these authors, but the anthology sounds really good.