This historical adventure is set in Pompeii just before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It is told alternately in the voice of Lucia, daughter of the owner of a gladiator school, and Tages, a medicus, a healer and her father’s slave. They had grown up together but Tages or Tag as he is known, was sent away in disgrace and on his return his childhood friend has become a lovely and marriageable young woman. Lucia does not want to marry her father’s choice, a far from attractive middle-aged man, and finds herself falling in love with Tag. Tag harbours ambitions to become a gladiator and thus find a way to be freed from slavery, and his opportunity comes when Quintus, a pompous young man seeking to curry his father’s favour, is deemed too vulnerable to train with the other gladiators who would rough him up, and Tag is chosen to train with him.
Lucia is an educated girl, the only surviving child of her parents, and is observing signs in the world that all is not well with the earth, the portents of the eruption to come. This education would not be welcomed in a wife, and this fact coupled with her growing love for Tag makes her determined to escape the marriage chosen for her. When her father gets a better offer for her from Quintus she and Tag decide to elope. The eruption of Vesuvius causes chaos and they risk death trying to find one another and get away. There is a tragedy at the end of the story, which I will not reveal.
Vicky Alvear Shecter has used a lot of information to create the Roman world, but it has been given to the reader painlessly and creates a vivid picture of life in Pompeii, warts and all. The appalling fate of girl babies, the way gladiators were trained, the position of women and slaves, all are described for the reader so Lucia and Tag really live. The language they speak rings true mostly, although I was surprised to read ‘gonna’! Those few slips should have been edited out and the cover does not relate to the drama of the story which is a shame as it may mislead and thus miss a wide readership. Once again there is no map which, like most historical novels, this story would benefit from.