Friday, July 16, 2010

Guest Blogger: Steve H.

Pompeii: a novel, by Robert Harris - Twentysomething Book Club
We venture back to Rome for this historical thriller, set on the eve of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and what a blast it is. The story begins with engineer Marcus Attilius, newly appointed charge of the Aqua Augusta, on a mission to find a spring in the midst of a drought. He fails in this assignment and heads home dejected, only to be pulled into a situation in which a slave is to be executed for the death of his master’s expensive fish. Attilius is summoned by the master’s daughter, Corelia, who believes there is something in the water that is killing the fish, perhaps having to do with the sulfur smell in the water, and thus the slave is not responsible. There begins the quest for the source of what may be polluting the water. Attilius soon discovers that the aqueducts in the local provinces are drying up too, and that there seems to be a much larger problem at hand. I am a fan of history and was pleased with this story, not only for its accurate depiction of the time period, but for the quick paced suspense. You have to hand it to Harris, keeping the story engaging despite the fact that the reader knows the ultimate outcome, the destruction of Pompeii, is a great feat. Harris also mixes together fictional characters with real historical characters, such as Pliny the Elder. Although the villain he created in the character of Numerius Popidius Ampliatus has a couple of excellent scenes, most of the characters fall somewhat flat, and the love story between Attilius and Corelia is quite thin. Various subplots though, like the one involving the missing aquarius, Exomnius, who Attilius replaced, add to the drama. And there is a nice amount of rich historical detail that I enjoyed, with Harris not going overboard on the history and burdening the story. We learn about the precision needed to create the great aqueducts and the mastery the Romans had with cement. One device Harris used which I simply glanced over was the volcanic information at the beginning of each chapter. These ranged from encyclopedic entries to formulas on the force of explosions. For me these were too scientific but I can see where some would enjoy these snippets. And at the beginning of the book, the similarity of Roman sounding names were a little hard to keep track of, but I found this to ease as the story evolved. Overall though this title was a fun and engaging read. It was a nice suspense thriller with some substance, and the right amount of historical accuracy. Give it a try for a quick summer read.

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