Pros: Excellent volcano and historical details. Occasionally captivating and intermittently haunting prose
Cons: Lackluster characterization.
On August 25, 79 AD the volcano Vesuvius erupted violently cauterizing and entombing the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Almost 1,500 years later the town of Pompeii was re-discovered and excavations began which revealed a fascinating snap-shot of First Century Roman life. This book occurs during the last three days of Pompeii's life.
The action revolves around Atilis, newly appointed aquarius of the great Aqua Agusta aqueduct. An aquarius was an engineer who was responsible for the smooth operation of an aqueduct. The aqueducts of the Roman world were true wonders. They were constructed without the aid of machinery, calculating devices, aerial surveys or any other sophisticated engineering technology in some uninviting terrain with slave labor in an arid climate. Some are still in use today, I believe. Without these spectacular accomplishments it's unlikely the Roman Empire would have ever come into being. Italy, especially the western shore that figures in this book is quite arid and would not support significant population centers of any size without water imported from the mountains. Atilis is called in to manage the Agusta, Italy's largest aqueduct, after his predecessor disappears. Almost immediately upon his arrival in office he is presented with a crisis: the Agusta runs dry and it's last waters are contaminated by sulfur... very bad. The first half of the book is concerned with Atilis' hurried mission to restore water to the West of Italy. The ominous shadow of Vesuvius hangs over all of the proceedings.
This book is rather in the mode of those old "disaster movies" from the 70's. The real star of the show is the disaster, in this case Vesuvius. Robert Harris does a decent jobs of building the tension by hinting at impending doom with earthquakes, sulfur in the water and the like. He also uses the nifty device of quoting from vulcanology textbooks which outline step-by-step what was going on in the core of the mountain as the action goes on below.
Harris is the author of "Fatherland", a "what-if-Hitler-had-won-the-war" story that was later made into a TV movie. Similarly to that work this book weaves real world situations and characters with the fictional story. The only real-life character I recognized was the great Roman scientist and author Pliny the Elder (Well, OK, his nephew Pliny the Younger was there as well, barely). His prose is quite readable and the book is oddly fascinating. It took me less than three days to put this book away. But for all of that there are a few problems with the book.
With the exception of the main character Atilis and Pliny the characters were fairly mono-dimensional. Any veteran viewer of Hollywood 40's and 50's -- "togas and -- ahem -- breasts" features such as "The Robe" or "Qvo Vadis" will recognize all the characters here: our earnest hero, the slimy merchant-businessman, the willowy, vulnerable, yet steel-spined lady fair, the brave old-fashioned Roman (Pliny), various shifty sinister low-lifes, there's even a strapping gladiator. All that's missing is the Christians being fed to the lions in the arena -- no Christians at all in fact. The mountain, and to some extent the aqueduct, are the real stars of the book. There is also a certain linearity in the story, unavoidable in the circumstances, you know how things are going to end. It's also a little busy, jamming all its story into seventy-two or so hours.
Harris does go out of his way to get the details right. I'm not a huge expert on the nitty-gritty details of Roman life but things certainly seem to be right. The volcano stuff I'm a little better versed on and here Harris does get his stuff right. Vesuuvius didn't erupt is the classic Hawaiian mode with pools and streams of liquid lava steaming down the slopes. The eruption that buried Pompeii and Herculanium was characterized by ejection of large amounts of lightweight ejecta Harris describes it as being like a frozen cloud) and what are called pyroclastic flows. There are large, fast-moving avalanches of fine rock and gasses. When super-heated these things are called nuee ardente which is French for "glowing cloud". (The French is used because the phenomenon was first described by survivors of the Mount Pelee eruption in 1902.) One of the most chilling episodes in "Pompeii" is where Harris describes a nuee ardente sweep soundlessly down over Herculaneum leaving nothing in its wake, not even fires, nothing but darkness and silence.
I don't think "Pompeii" will ever find its way onto the "Best Books of the Twenty-First Century" lists but it will capture your interest for the time it takes to read it.