In the coastal town of Pompeii, a new gladiator star is on the rise. But the gladiator hides a deadly secret: she’s actually a runaway Jewish slave named Ariella, who’s disguised herself as a young boy. A savvy fighter, Ariella determines to triumph in the arena, knowing her life would be forfeit should anyone uncover her truth.
Cato, a wealthy politician, resettled in Pompeii after tiring of the corruption in Rome. But he soon learns Pompeii is just as corrupt, and if he doesn’t play the game, his family could pay the price. Determined to bring about justice for the citizens of Pompeii, Cato searches for allies. But what he discovers instead are a confounding group of Christians… and a young female gladiator whose fame is growing daily.
Political unrest reaches a boiling point, as Christians are jailed and executed, and the mountain in the distance threatens to destroy the city with a river of fire. Cato and Ariella must act quickly and courageously to save their loved ones before all is lost.
City on Fire was first published in 2011 as Pompeii: City on Fire by a different publishing company, so if the plot is familiar to you this is why. The release by Thomas Nelson has given Higley the opportunity to revisit it, as she did with Isle of Shadows. I hadn’t read the previous version; hence City on Fire is new to me.
It starts in AD 70 when the Romans sacked Jerusalem. Ariella, a Jewish teen, is captured and taken into slavery. When we next meet her, nine years have passed and she is the personal favorite of an important Roman citizen by the name of Valerius. Throughout the novel we gradually learn what happened to her during those nine years and, as one can imagine, it wasn’t pleasant. Chopping her hair, she disguises herself as a young man and joins a troupe of gladiators in training. It appears not many of them have clear eyesight, because no one realizes she’s female except for an old Jewish slave named Jeremiah. It is through him that this independently minded, freedom-seeking woman meets Pompeii’s group of Christians. After Cato gets to know her, through his own meetings with the sect, he is determined to protect her. But his actions are often impulsive and Ariella is furious with his interference. One of his decisions will ultimately put her life in a danger from which it is impossible to escape…
A novel by Tracy Higley means a narrative so rich with description that the reader can see, hear, and sometimes even smell, the action. The author does so much research that you can guarantee the accuracy of what you’re reading. The homes of the main characters are based on the ruins of homes that can be seen at Pompeii. Some of those characters are even taken from stone inscriptions discovered at the site. She describes the earthquake that took place prior to the eruption of Vesuvius. When I began reading about the festival of Vulcanalia, I knew the end was near since Vesuvius blew the following day. So many times I wanted to turn to the end to discover which of the characters survived. If I’d done that, however, I would have missed the buildup of tension, the final battle of good and evil, and the haunting passages that treat Vesuvius as a living, sentient being.
At times, City on Fire is a dark novel. One of the major plot points concerns the Cult of Dionysus, also known as Bacchus. Although nothing explicit is described, there are enough hints of what might have happened during the Bacchanalia rites to make some readers uncomfortable. This was a society always wanting newer and wilder experiences and the arena events are also an example of this gluttony. These Pagan excesses were very real, however, regardless of which gods were worshipped. It was presumed that the gods had to be worshipped in order to extend their blessings. Therefore, the greater the worship, the greater the blessing expected. How thankful I am that I worship the God who demands nothing except our faith and the acceptance of HIS sacrifice.
Incidentally, if you’re looking for a brand new Tracy Higley novel, The Queen’s Handmaid will be released in February 2014.
Thank you to Thomas Nelson and Booksneeze for my free copy of City on Fire, which I received in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication Date: 17 September 2013
Page Count: 400