It’s been a month and a week anniversary of the launch of A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii! In celebration of the release of the historical novel, I just completed a “Ring of Fire” series for the last six weeks where I tossed the fire torch to each of the authors every Wednesday or Thursday in order for them to answer a few quick questions about the book. All of the authors were given the same two questions! You can see a link to that six-week series of micro-interview below.
What this seventh week brings us is my review! But first, some tiny bits of background…
In case you were hiding under an umbrella tree and missed the hell fire and brimstone, leaving you to not have read the past posts in the series, this book was written by six top historical novelists who joined forces to bring readers the stories of Pompeii’s residents—from patricians to prostitutes—as their world ended. It’s a combined novel by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn and Vicky Alvear Shecter, with an introduction by Michelle Moran, in which each takes on a character and intertwines them into the story.
Originally upon hearing about the novel, I was thrilled because it sounded like such a unique idea surrounding a topic that I’ve always been extra curious about: Pompeii. Throughout historical lessons, we learn of how they died, population numbers, and hypotheses (and in recent years the sad decay of the ruins). We’ve even learned a little of who they were based on graffiti, art, agriculture, and DNA testing (super amazing, right?). The idea of the authors to write six different stories, with each author focused on a different type of person that might have truly existed in Pompeii (in fact, some of them did and then they fictionalized their story based on research and educated guess) was really intriguing.
Though I figured it would be well-written, what I hadn’t realized was how mesmerized the stories would leave me. I had started to read and didn’t have a choice but to put to the side for a little while, so when I picked it back up and started over, I read straight through in one night and I was left wanting more. Each story played into or on another story, characters over-lapped, and plots intertwined in such a way that even the characters didn’t know it was happening. It made me so happy I’d probably walk on coals for it! Ok, maybe not, but I would trade my chocolate bar to have time to read it over again. The layers within the stories and the plots kept my mind at work, immersed in the stories completely, while taking me on the highs and lows of this emotional roller coaster.
When at first I read the stories by Vicky and Sophie, I thought they were just going to be stories about individuals and how their life ended once Vesuvius erupted. I didn’t quite put the pieces together yet, I just enjoyed the stories. Vicky’s story caught me off-guard by her twist and I was surprised by the ending and who one of her characters turned out to be. Her characters of Prima and Gaius Plinius were so dimensional; they set-up very well the rest of the stories in the book in a way that carried all the way through to the end. She even introduces the nobleman Pansa, who keeps a thread, or a pulse, on the rest of the characters throughout the book. But I can’t give spoilers! It really gave us a glimpse into the society and culture within Pompeii and how they interacted together.
Sophie’s was a wonderful thought-provoking piece on marriage, love, lust, defying labels, father/daughter relationships, and the independent female. I did like Aemilia, but I admit, I felt more a connection to Sabinus in the story. I also felt like shouting, “why is no one paying attention to what this expert is saying about the tremors!” I like how Sophie’s story set-up for us some of the pre-currents of rumbling, which created suspense. We sense that just as their lifestyle was a dichotomy, so was their attention to the disaster. However, I truly I fell in love with Diana of the Cornelii in this story!! I loved her interaction with Aemilia, the symbolism she inserted, and the lovely details. I found I was hoping Diana would re-appear later in the story.
In Ben’s story we meet quite a different set of men living in the city of vacation. We meet retired military man Rufus and are reminded of the Roman gladiators. He gives a great explanation of how they were bought, used, and kept. He brought to us, in the grand style that Ben usually does, some of the element of their military and their entertainment (as awful as it was) but with a more behind-the-scenes look at the arena. He shows us how vulgar the practice was and made us feel sorry for the gladiators, such as Pugnax. It slipped us away for a moment into another realm of their society and reminded us further that many Romans vacationed in Pompeii, enjoying the sea, brothels, and this amphitheater form of entertainment. Later, when this element of the story reappears, he had already created depth of sadness for them so that we become mournful in a way that might not have been triggered otherwise.
As I started to read the latter stories, I saw how the characters in these first sections were brought back into the plots making them part of an overlying arc of characters. I was thrilled to see Diana return in full force in Kate’s story and I loved her even further for her courage, wit, and stubbornness. How interesting to find out that Diana and Marcus Norbanus are characters from Kate’s novel Mistress of Rome. I had meant to read that anyway, but now I’m sold. Kate’s story in A Day of Fire was so very hilarious that it gave a good break from what we know as a very sad situation. It really lifted the book before the climax (which Kate would certainly chuckle and say I made a play on words about Pompeii society), but it’s true. My favorite part was the page, when Diana was medically helping him with his hurt knee, and what she proposed he bite down on!! She gives us a captivating back story for each of these characters, and is one of the best stories in the book. The dialogue between the couple was priceless. Sometimes we exasperate those we like the most right? What do they say about those couples who bicker are the most likely to stay together? She also shows us the side of Pompeii culture with the brothel/whorehouse (an unlikely place they ended up), the sexual graffiti on the walls, and then all the funny, but authentic, phallus symbols found on statues, frescoes, adornments, accessories, etc. At that point, I also eventually become sad again realizing how people were used for sex and what variation of deviations really went on.
Eliza’s story takes us back to a well-to-do family, with some characters re-appearing of course, such as Julilla. Eliza takes a credible view using a family, and one that actually existed in Pompeii, and re-creates what their final moments were like. It was an extraordinary story based on facts, giving us ideas as to what is still not known about that family. She uses her motherly instincts and lets us into the feelings of a mother about to give birth, of a sister who cares for her brother, as a new wife. As a mother myself, it was extremely painful to read and this made it the most emotional and gripping story of the novel. I had trouble wiping away all the tears and I think that it will always haunt me–the knowing that they were real and what happened to them. I’ve read other things by Eliza, but this has to be the best thing I’ve read by her yet.
And then Stephanie finishes it up by bringing another favorite character of mine back, Sabinus, as well as Capella. Their relationship was interesting. Not really love, or forbidden love, or family, but a dedication of sorts. And I was so looking forward, with all the little foreshadowing previously of Isis being a religion practiced by some in Pompeii, to Stephanie bringing that into the story. Learning of Capella’s ancestry, seeing her relationship with her sister (which how this ends us will surprise you, so I don’t want to spoil), and then her use of the Isis Temple for the spiritual end of the story was nothing short of amazing. I have never forgot Stephanie’s books on Cleopatra Selene, the third showing us a little of how Isis was still practiced in Rome. She truly took me back there again, so much so that I could “feel” Capella’s spiritual energy. Her amazing spirit and peaceful demeanor. Her destiny. Stephanie told such a redemptive tale, and one of embracing life after death, that she seemed to give all the people of Pompeii a lasting legacy of worth. I truly am always absorbed in Stephanie’s writing, and this time didn’t have me faltering from that. She was the perfect author–with the perfect story–to finish out the novel.
Overall, I loved not only how they weaved the character’s lives together, but also I enjoyed all the many details and descriptions, such as the wine production and the drinking of the wine (and that it was more available than even water once the disaster started). I liked the symbolism of the grapes sustaining life. I enjoyed the depictions of the art and architecture, the portrayals of life among the classes and how they interacted with slaves (and how various people became slaves), and the nods to the infrastructure and sustainability of the society. It was intricately well-researched and explained in a way that was accurate and authentic, as well as a joy to read. I could go on and on about the nuances and the characters, but really I can’t do justice to explain them. It’s just something special to read it for yourself.
I highly recommend this book not just to read, but as a keepsake; you’ll want to read it over and over again, burning each time for it when it has to sit on your shelf. It’s pages are alive with people of the past who don’t want to be forgotten. This book would be a miraculous gift for anyone who enjoys ancient history. A truly original tale and perfectly plotted feat of magnificent stature, even the Romans would applaud! Definitely one of my best historical reads of 2014!
Series of Micro-interviews with Author Bios:
A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii released on November 4, 2014. Order now!
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00NI5CBXI</
A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii, Information~
by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn and Vicky Alvear Shecter,
with an introduction by Michelle Moran
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: November 4, 2014
Six top historical novelists join forces to bring readers the stories of Pompeii’s residents—from patricians to prostitutes—as their world ended. You will meet:
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 . . .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 top historical 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?