This is a piece of historical fiction with a mix of mostly fictional but also some real historical figures set in the backdrop of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Marcus Attilius Primus is a young engineer sent to take charge of the Aqua Augusta, one of the largest and most complex aqueduct systems in ancient Rome that supplied water to nine cities. The previous aquarius, Exominius has vanished without a trace, and there are problems creeping up with the water supply, from the sulphurous smells in the water to the supply literally drying up in some cities. Marcus, who comes from a family of engineers, is keen to restore the aqueduct to normal, and traces the source of the problem to Vesuvius. Corelia a slave-turned-millionaire’s daughter meanwhile seeks Marcus’ help when the water in their home kills her father’s prized fish and a slave is unfairly blamed. Alongside we have the historical Pliny the elder, serving as admiral but also a naturalist and philosopher interested in all manner of natural phenomena, who Marcus turns to for aid when he realises he must reach Pompeii without delay. In this quest become woven the stories of Corelia, her father Ampliatus and his (so-called) friends, and also Pliny. Pompeii is decadent and corrupt, and Marcus’ seemingly straightforward mission soon becomes surrounded with intrigue and conspiracies, putting his life in danger. Meanwhile in the background Vesuvius is preparing to erupt—our story begins two days before the eruption and continues through the eruption and its immediate aftermath.

This is an exciting tale that pretty much has it all—mystery, adventure, danger (from people and nature), a touch of romance, and also manages to give the reader a picture of life in the time period, and the disaster that nature is about to unleash. Throughout the book, while Marcus is tracing the source of the aqueduct’s problems and alongside looking into his predecessor’s mysterious disappearance (and battling his newly acquired enemies), one finds one is constantly thinking of the much bigger disaster looming in the background, which makes these ‘smaller’ events seem almost insignificant—the author certainly manages to get us to be constantly aware of the real reason behind some of the things that are happening which our characters don’t realise until the explosion. Each chapter begins with quotes from volcanology texts which add to this feeling. I enjoyed the entire historical context, how the author wove Pliny’s real-life story in with the stories of our characters, and the picture of the decadent and corrupt city which Pompeii would have been when these events played out. Also the description of the eruption itself—how it would have been experienced by those who were there—people being pelted with pumice endlessly and the scorching (far worse) winds that followed, more deadly than the eruption itself. The stories of the fictional characters too I enjoyed following though as other reviewers have also noted, the characters themselves were perhaps too black and white. Still, this made for an enjoyable read overall.  

Have you read this one or any others by Harris? Which one(s) and how did you find it/them? Looking forward to your thoughts and recommendations!

Cover image: Goodreads

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Pompeii by Robert Harris

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