Harris’ novel tells the story of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed the city of Pompeii, through the experiences of Marcus Attilus, the aquarius (or engineer) of the Aqua Augustus. The aqueduct has failed, and his predecessor, Exominus, has disappeared. This young, decent man has to work out what has happened and fix the fault. The outcome is known from the start, that the volcano destroys the city, but will Attilus fix it before the eruption – and what has happened to Exominus? A story told according to the geological phases of the volcanic eruption unfolds.
The structure of the book works well, told over a period of four days, with most of the action before the eruption itself. Time is broken down according to the Roman clock, with each chapter prefaced with technical reference to volcanology. Not only does this gives a natural building up of the tension, for you know that the eruption is coming, but it allows for close observation of the routines of Roman life. Harris’ descriptions of the shifting of the Vesuvius and the mighty explosions are superbly described – through the eyes of Attilus, and the keenly observant Admiral Pliny – a ‘real’ person from Roman History.
Pliny is one of the best-described characters in Pompeii, a man in the latter days of his life, looking back at his past adventures, remembering the soldier that he was and shaping the man he wants to be. Other characters are perhaps more formulaic – our young hero, Attilus, dashing, determined and with a tragedy in his past. An evil villain, Numerius Popius Ampliatus, is caricature-like; you can almost hear the pantomime ‘boo’s’ as he sweeps through the pages of the book. A heroine, Ampliatus’ daughter Corelia, is rather predictably, beautiful, obstinate and defiant, catching Attilus’ eye. There are many named characters introduced in this relatively short novel, with unfamiliar sounding names akin to the period, it makes for some to-ing and fro-ing on the electronic pages. Perhaps a little irritating.
The natural tension of the book is enhanced with the conundrums of the curious disappearance of Exominus, and the evil player Ampliatus. Ampliatus was once a slave, and has risen to financial and political heights within Pompeii. Attilus crosses his path early on in the book and you wonder whether the volcano or Ampliatus will end his life first.
It is a page-turner, and a quick read – despite the volume of Roman names and the thinness of some of the characters. The delight is in the observation of landscape and Roman society under a microscope, both enabled by the small window of time that the novel explores. A weakness of the Kindle edition is the terrible map, which would have been much flicked back to in a ‘real’ book had it been in my hands.
Overall an engaging read for lovers of landscapes and historical fiction alike, perhaps let down by the drawing of the main characters, with the marked exception of Pliny.