"Along the Mediterranean coast, the Roman empire's richest citizens are relaxing in their villas, enjoying the last days of summer. But while the gorgeous weather belies impending doom, only one man is worried. The young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus has taken charge of the Aqua Augusta, the enormous aqueduct that brings fresh water to the people around the Bay of Naples. There is a crisis ib Augusta's main line - somewhere north of Pompeii, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius - and Attilius must repair the aqueduct before the reservoir runs dry. His plan is to organize an expedition in Pompeii, then head to the place where he believes the fault lies. But Pompeii proves to be a corrupt, violent town, and Attilius discovers that there are powerful forces at work - natural and otherwise - threatening to destroy him."
When I first picked up Pompeii, I was unsure if I would enjoy it. I could imagine the plot already: volcano erupts, everyone dies, the end. I figured there wasn't much meat that Harris could put between the covers to hold my attention. However, I was happily surprised. Instead of focusing on the obviously impending volcanic eruption, Harris writes a first person account of a new aquarius. As aquarius, Attilius is tasked with managing and maintaining Rome's expansive systems of aqueducts. It is a respected profession and one that does not carry much danger, which is how Attilius likes it. This changes, however, when he discovers a sulfurous smell to the water in the aqueduct. No one really know what this means. Most think it is an omen or cause to sacrifice to one god or the other. In fact, not many people really realize what volcanoes are or why periodic earthquakes are so common in the region. This is where the tragedy of the story ultimately lies and what serves to build up the tension until the eruption finally occurs.
With the exception of the protagonist, most of the characters in Pompeii don't seem to be completely fleshed out. There is the love interest, the antagonist, and the loyal friend. Attilius, however, has more depth. There are many different threads of the story that never seem completely connected until the very end. Though the set up was interesting, the last forty-five pages or so (when the magma hits the fan) is really where the magic happens. Harris's depiction of history and science is very exciting to read.
My biggest criticism of the novel was that it gave me an ever present feeling that I read it before. It took me a little while to realize that it is because the plot seems almost identical to almost any two-star Hollywood disaster movie:
1. Everyone is oblivious to an inescapable disaster that will destroy them
2. One man (usually an expert in a related field) holds the key to the future
3. The people in power do not believe the protagonist until it is too late
4. The hero gets the girl in the end and everyone who doubted him is destroyed
Does this make Pompeii a bad book? I don't think so. I like it for all the same reasons I like movies like Volcano and Dante's Peak. They aren't the cream of their respective crops, but they are a fast paced guilty pleasure that you don't need to think too much about. For a serious literary masterpiece, you may want to look elsewhere. However, if you want a fun diversion from the norm, I suggest giving Pompeii a try.
Author Robert Harris also has written Imperium and Conspirata among others. You can visit author’s website for additional information about the book. If you would like to preview the story before reading it, why not try out this excerpt of the book?
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Here are some of my favorite options for purchasing this book: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and R.J. Julia (my favorite Indy bookstore).
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