Thursday, 23 March 2017

Review: A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Some time ago, I reviewed “A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica’s Rebellion”, an anthology by several historical fiction authors. “A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii” by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn and Vicky Alvear Shecter is similar to that: each of the six authors wrote a story, and together these stories form a single narrative.

The authors have each been given/picked characters from whose perspective they tell the story. This actually works very well: each story is long enough to draw you in and make you care about the characters. The setting is the same (obviously), which aids the immersion, and since all authors have previously written stories set in the same era, or close enough, the feel of the period is about as good as it can be. The only drawback is that I got attached to the POV characters in each story and wanted to follow them to the end. Only seeing them appear in – more or less – supporting roles in someone else’s story was, at times, a little disappointing. On the other hand, familiar characters (re)appearing now and again was part of the pleasure of reading this book. It was like seeing old friends!

The story of the final days of Pompeii is told from various perspectives: slaves, senators, soldiers… people from all walks of life. The narrative is centred around an epic disaster, which lends it plenty of tension, yet it is always the human drama and stories of individuals that take the centre stage. What do we do when our life is in danger? What is our duty or our obligation towards others? What matters the most to each of us: our earthly possessions, our own skin or the lives of those we love? How far will we go to save ourselves – or others?

Vicky Alvear Shecter’s “The Son” is a coming-of-age story where a young man learns that being a man has little to do with bedding tavern whores; it is about virtue and duty and integrity.

“The Heiress” by Sophie Perinot is another coming-of-age type story where a wealthy young woman rebels against an arranged marriage to an older, seemingly boring man.

Ben Kane’s “The Soldier” is a gritty story of an ex-legionary, loyalty – and it brings out the gladiators!

In Kate Quinn’s “The Senator” an elderly, embittered senator meets a fiercely independent, chariot-racing woman. She’s a survivor, he’s suicidal – and they’re thrown together into this end-of-days situation. What ensues is some genuine, warm humour, yet this piece isn’t just a comedy but also has a more serious tone, especially towards the end – which makes it all the more poignant, because I grew very fond of this odd pair. While reading each story, I rooted for the main characters of that story to survive, but was even more desperate to see Marcus and Diana make it. The characters seemed just so vivid, and it took me a while to realise that this was probably because they appear in Quinn’s previous novels, which I read quite some time ago! Now I want to go and reread those…

E. Knight’s “The Mother” is a story about family, love and a terrible choice faced by a young mother-to-be.

Stephanie Dray’s “The Whore” is a powerful, heart-breaking story narrated by two sisters, who are very different from one another and thus offer us two contrasting perspectives. I also have to mention “The Whore”, because it’s the last story in the book, and the ending was the one thing that had me worried. I mean, we know what happened in Pompeii. Would I ever really actually want to finish this book? The end can’t possibly be happy. Yes, you can write an unhappy ending. You can even write an unhappy ending that is still a good ending and even a satisfying ending. That takes some skill, though... and Stephanie Dray pulls it off beautifully. There is grief, but there is hope. There is loss, but there is love. It is the end, but it is a new beginning.

I'd recommend “A Day of Fire” to fans of historical fiction and those who are interested in the ancient world. It is also a great opportunity to sample the work of various authors!

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