City on Fire: A Novel of Pompeii
By Tracy L. Higley
Thomas Nelson Publishers
17 September 2013
City on Fire: A Novel of Pompeii by Tracy L. Higley follows a young Jewish woman, Ariella, who escapes Roman slavery during Bacchanalia and disguises herself as a man to become a gladiator; and Cato, a politician fed up with the corruption in Rome who’s moved to Pompeii to start over, only to discover that his new city is just as corrupt. Before the story even begins, readers are presented with a map of the relevant area (basically, a map of Roman Italy) and a glossary of Latin terms used throughout the novel. (I’ll get to the Latin in a minute.) The novel is set briefly in Jerusalem in 70 CE and mostly in Pompeii in 79 CE, the year that Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the entire city alive. Ariella and Cato find an unlikely set of allies in the growing Christian movement (because their aims are pure, I assume, despite neither being a professed Christian), though Christians at that time were being jailed and executed.
Here’s the thing about City on Fire. I love historical fiction, and it’s clear that this book was well-researched. The history is its strongest selling point, in my opinion. However, I really hate it when I see so many unknown terms are used that the book requires a glossary… which this one does. It’s one thing if it’s a textbook or I’m learning a new language and I want to learn new words. I realize that Higley is trying to bring readers into Ariella and Cato’s respective worlds by using authentic Latin, and one or two defined words thrown in for flavor could be really neat. Unfortunately, every time I have to say to myself, “Now, what does that word mean again?” and flip to the front to check the glossary, I’m pulled out of the story, which is exactly the opposite of what the author certainly wants. I speak only for myself in this respect, but if you’re a reader who also becomes frustrated by “flavor words” the way I do, you might want to skip City on Fire.
The story—the pair of intertwined stories, as it were—is a good one. The writing is readable. Despite Ariella’s obvious gender nonconformity in her chosen profession—though I’m not sure “chosen profession” is really accurate because she’s an escaped slave under the threat of death should she be discovered—I didn’t like the gender essentialism woven through basically every page and that Higley seems to employ without any thought. (And, no, “history was like that; I’m just being historically accurate” is not an acceptable excuse for sexism, however subtle it may be.) That being said, I had no problem with Ariella choosing for her life to disguise herself as a (male) gladiator. Suspending my disbelief is easy when it comes to women “doing men’s work” because I know that women are human (gasp!) and there’s really no such thing as “men’s work”… Honestly, what year is this? 1850? Yes, I realize the novel’s setting is (way) before feminism was even a blip on anybody’s radar, but in the real world, it’s (almost) 2014.
I liked the descriptions of the pagan elements much more than any of the Christian ones, but I’m not sure how honest those descriptions were compared to their Christian counterparts. Most of the pagan descriptors were negative (ie: “Let the debauchery begin” and “lewd songs an costumes an affront to decency” and “The insanity built to a crescendo” and so on), while the Christian ones were presented much more positively (ie: “abundant life” and “holy hands” and “merciful God” and “loyal” etc). I suppose that’s to be expected, since the story was written by a Christian author and published by Thomas Nelson, one of the preeminent Christian publishers in the United States. I am always hoping to find a “Christian novel” that’s more for those who are searching (as opposed to those who’ve already found what they’re looking for), but unfortunately, this novel had a very promising beginning that just seemed to fall into the same old Christians-are-good-everyone-else-is-bad dynamics. In the end, not appealing and way over the top.
The back cover is misleading, I think: “As Vesuvius churns, a slave girl-turned-gladiator joins forces with an unlikely source to seek justice. In the coastal town of Pompeii, a new gladiator prepares to fight. But this gladiator hides a deadly secret: she’s a runaway Jewish slave girl named Ariella, disguised as a young boy.” What age do you think Ariella is? Have a number in your head? Now, for the lion’s share of the novel, she’s actually twenty-five. To me, that’s not a “girl-turned-gladitor” hiding as “a young boy”…
All semantics aside—I’m still looking for the perfect novel, and this isn’t it—my primary interest was in finding out if Ariella, Cato, and their families manage to get out of Pompeii alive before the volcano on the horizon explodes and overtakes them all. Do they? You might be surprised by the answer. I’ll let you read City on Fire to find out for yourself.
DISCLAIMER: I received City on Fire free from Thomas Nelson Publishers for this review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.