08 March 2009

Book Review: Pompeii by Robert Harris

Historical Fiction Challenge #2

Pompeii Marcus Attilius Primus is having a rough start to his new job as aquarius of the Aqua Augusta, and it doesn’t help that his arrival in Misenum coincides with strange omens. His predecessor Exomnius has vanished into thin air. Attempts to dig a new spring fail when the water is repeatedly sucked back into the earth. The weather is odd, with air and sea alike deathly still while tremors appear on the surface of a glass of wine. His overseer, Corax, makes no secret of his resentment at having to take orders from a pretty boy from Rome. Then, in the space of a few hours, the Augusta’s water supply takes on a stench of sulphur and dries up. In a drought, in the middle of a scorching summer, at the height of the tourist season, a quarter of a million people around the Bay of Neapolis are left without fresh water.

Knowing that the fault must lie along a particular five-mile stretch of the aqueduct, Attilius seeks the help of the admiral Pliny, asking for a ship to take his crew across the bay. By a stroke of ill luck, they arrive in Pompeii on a public holiday - and the aediles who rule the town see no point in helping fix a problem that doesn’t affect them, especially without a cast-iron guarantee that they won’t have to foot the bill. Desperate to meet Pliny’s two-day deadline, Attilius has no choice but to accept the assistance of Ampliatus, a former slave turned shady property tycoon who can see the PR value in restoring the water supply. Ampliatus is already his enemy, and he has no use for men he can’t corrupt - men like Attilius, who is certain that his new benefactor has something to do with Exomnius’s disappearance. But before he can solve that mystery, or give more thought to the subject of Ampliatus’s beautiful daughter Corelia, he must find and repair the break in the Augusta’s main line, somewhere at the foot of Mt Vesuvius. What he doesn’t realise is just how much of a threat Ampliatus considers him to be - or how close Vesuvius is to exploding.

After finishing Pompeii I went to my TBR box in search of a nice relaxing murder mystery. Seriously, reading this was stressful. A good man standing alone against obstruction, corruption, and a potentially career-ending disaster, engaged in a race against time, and with the whole scenario centred around one of the most terrifying events Mother Nature has ever dished up, is a recipe for an edge-of-your-seat read. Attilius was a great hero - honest, hardworking, a good leader even when the men under him didn’t make it easy, proud to be continuing the family tradition of working on the aqueducts and with a real love for the science behind his profession. And vertically challenged! I knew just how he felt when, despite being a poor rider, he was pleased to get on horseback because of the extra height it gave. Long before he began to suspect that something catastrophic was about to occur, I desperately hoped that he’d survive. Corelia, too. She occasionally acted first and thought things through later, which is usually not my favourite trait in heroines, but I happily forgave her because she did so in the interests of saving other people’s lives. And it was good to see that life with Ampliatus as a father hadn’t crushed her spirit or quelled her integrity.

Theres a fine variety of antagonists. Corax loathes Attilius on principle, being younger and an outsider. Ampliatus is thoroughly bent, with the understandable acquisitiveness of someone who once had nothing and no scruples as to how he fills his coffers and pays for the ostentatious lifestyle he thinks he ought to maintain. The town’s aediles aren’t villains per se, but a shining example of petty bureaucracy and its attendant red tape. But the star of the show, whom not even Ampliatus can outdo, is nature’s fury. From the first horrible realisation of what’s about to happen to the final blast that swamped the town of Pompeii, the eruption appears in all its destructive glory, and it’s easy to feel the fear of those caught up in it (and I felt rather sorry for Pliny’s secretary, dragged out to sea in a hail of pumice to take down his master’s observations. Good thing for science, though). There’s even volcano-themed quotes from scientific texts at the beginnings of chapters to give a picture of what was going on beneath the earth.

Much to my irritation, one picture not provided was a map. Numerous locations mentioned, but no map. Knowing only that Pompeii was near the water and Vesuvius was near Pompeii, I drew my own map from images online and left it tucked in the front of the book for next time. And the ending was of a sort not my favourite, but it worked well here.

Rating: A-

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776