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Pompeii [Paperback]

Robert Harris
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Nov. 2 2004
Ancient Rome is the setting for the superb new novel from Robert Harris, author of the number one bestsellers Fatherland, Enigma and Archangel.

Where else to enjoy the last days of summer than on the beautiful Bay of Naples. All along the coast, the Roman Empire’s richest citizens are relaxing in their luxurious villas. The world’s largest navy lies peacefully at anchor in Misenum. The tourists are spending their money in the seaside resorts of Baiae, Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Only one man is worried. The engineer Marius Primus has just taken charge of the Aqua Augusta, the enormous aqueduct that brings fresh water to a quarter of a million people in nine towns around the Bay. Springs are failing for the first time in generations. His predecessor has disappeared. And now there is a crisis on the Augusta’s sixty-mile main line -- somewhere to the north of Pompeii, on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Marius -- decent, practical, incorruptible -- promises Pliny, the famous scholar who commands the navy, that he can repair the aqueduct before the reservoir runs dry. But as he heads out towards Vesuvius he is about to discover there are forces that even the world’s only superpower can’t control.

Pompeii recreates in spellbinding detail one of the most famous natural disasters of all time. And by focusing on the characters of an engineer and a scientist, it offers an entirely original perspective on the Roman world.


From the Hardcover edition.

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From Amazon

Certain thriller writers burst upon the scene with considerable impact: Forsyth with The Day of the Jackal, Cruz Smith with Gorky Park and Robert Harris with the masterly Fatherland. Interestingly, of these three authors, by far the most consistent has been Harris, and his new novel, Pompeii is in some ways his most audacious offering yet, a brilliantly orchestrated thriller-cum-historical recreation that plays outrageous tricks with the reader's expectations.

As in the equally adroit Enigma, Harris takes a familiar historical event (there, the celebrated code-breakers at Bletchley Park, here the volcanic obliteration of an Italian city in AD79) and seamlessly weaves a characteristically labyrinthine plot in and around the existing facts. But that's not all he does here: few novelists who (unlike Harris) make a speciality of ancient history for their setting pull off the sense of period quite as impressively as the author does here. As the famous catastrophe approaches, we are pleasurably immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the Ancient World, each detail conjured with jaw-dropping verisimilitude.

Harris's protagonist is the engineer Marcus Attilius, placed in charge of the massive aqueduct that services the teeming masses living in and around the Bay of Naples. Despite the pride he takes in his job, Marcus has pressing concerns: his predecessor in the job has mysteriously vanished, and another task is handed to Marcus by the scholar Pliny: he is to undertake crucial repairs to the aqueduct near Pompeii, the city in the shadow of the restless Mount Vesuvius. And as Marcus faces several problems--all life threatening--an event approaches that will make all his concerns seem petty.

Other writers have placed narratives in the shadow of this most famous of volcanic cataclysms, but Harris triumphantly ensures that his characters' individual dramas are not dwarfed by implacable nature; Marcus is a vividly drawn hero: complex, conflicted and a canny synthesis of modern and ancient mindsets. Some may wish that Harris might return to something closer to our time in his next novel, but few who take this trip into a dangerous past will be able to resist Harris's spellbinding historical saga. --Barry Forshaw --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

In this fine historical by British novelist Harris (Archangel; Enigma; Fatherland), an upstanding Roman engineer rushes to repair an aqueduct in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, which, in A.D. 79, is getting ready to blow its top. Young Marcus Attilius Primus becomes the aquarius of the great Aqua Augusta when its former chief engineer disappears after 20 years on the job. When water flow to the coastal town of Misenum is interrupted, Attilius convinces the admiral of the Roman fleet-the scholar Pliny the Elder-to give him a fast ship to Pompeii, where he finds the source of the problem in a burst sluiceway. Lively writing, convincing but economical period details and plenty of intrigue keep the pace quick, as Attilius meets Corelia, the defiant daughter of a vile real estate speculator, who supplies him with documents implicating her father and Attilius's predecessor in a water embezzlement scheme. Attilius has bigger worries, though: a climb up Vesuvius reveals that an eruption is imminent. Before he can warn anyone, he's ambushed by the double-crossing foreman of his team, Corvax, and a furious chase ensues. As the volcano spews hot ash, Attilius fights his way back to Pompeii in an attempt to rescue Corelia. Attilius, while possessed of certain modern attitudes and a respect for empirical observation, is no anachronism. He even sends Corelia back to her cruel father at one point, advising her to accept her fate as a woman. Harris's volcanology is well researched, and the plot, while decidedly secondary to the expertly rendered historic spectacle, keeps this impressive novel moving along toward its exciting finale.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Pompeii marks the partial return to form of Robert Harris, who burst onto the scene a few years ago with the magnificent "Fatherland". He followed that with "Enigma", another thriller set in World War Two which was interesting but flawed, and then produced the absolutely appalling "Archangel". I've had "Pompeii" on my shelves for a while now, not daring to read the book in case it also turned out to be a stinker. I finally read it a few days ago and am glad that I did.

If you're going to set a book in the few days before Vesuvius explodes, the main challenge is to produce a narrative which can engage the reader who knows perfectly well that the volcano is about to extinguish Pompeii, Herculaneum and other nearby towns, ending life in the region. "Pompeii" tells the story of the young water engineer Marcus Attilius, who is given his job after his veteran predecessor disappears. Soon there is a break in the Aqua Augusta, the immense viaduct which brings water to several towns near Vesuvius. Attilius is charged with first finding and then fixing the disruption but runs into big and potentially fatal problems when it becomes clear his investigations will pose all sorts of embarrassing problems for the local elite.

As ever, Harris writes exceedingly well. He has done his research and you can feel the sweat running down the backs of the overworked labourers in the shadows of the volcano, hear the insects buzzing all around and smell the ancient and exceedingly expensive wine offered to pompeii's luminaries. The main problem with the book is that Attilius never really comes to life. He is an honest young man pitched into a sea of corruption, someone trying to forget the recent death of his young wife, yet he stays largely on the page, rarely engaging the reader. That said, "Pompeii" is worth reading for the description of the volcanic blast alone.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A natural history page-turning thriller! Oct. 14 2005
Format:Paperback
Dateline, August 79 AD: Marcus Attilius Primus, a young, savvy aquarius, or water engineer, has been sent from Rome as replacement for the AWOL Exomnius to ensure the proper maintenance of Aqua Augusta, the aqueduct that supplies Pompeii, Herculaneum and the towns on the Bay of Naples. Investigation into the problem of the aqueduct drying up and its failure to deliver its critical liquid payload uncovers not only municipal theft of water and graft of epic proportions but natural problems and concerns relating to Vesuvius and its pending eruption - tremors, pollution of the water with sulphur emissions, rockfalls, and shifts and bulges in the earth's surface, not to mention breakages and blockages in the aqueduct itself.
Insofar as the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum are concerned, we all know how the story ends. So it fell to Harris' skill as a writer to build and maintain momentum and suspense in spite of that. With the clever device of a brief excerpt from a scientific treatise on volcanism serving as a preface to every chapter plus absolutely scintillating descriptive writing, what might have been a monumentally boring exposition of the final few hours leading up to Vesuvius' cataclysmic eruption becomes rather a thrilling natural history page turner that actually had my stomach twisted up into knots as I felt the clock ticking toward the inevitable catastrophe!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting attempt.... Nov. 17 2003
By ilmk
Format:Hardcover
Robert Harris' venture into the world of Imperial Rome provides a different slant on the usual historical method of fiction. More concerned with the engineering of the Aqua Augusta (the longest aqueduct in Italy at the time) seen through the eyes of its Aquarius - Marius Attilius Primus - the novel moves away from providing excitement through historical fictionalisation to a quiet retelling of one the ancient world's most famous cataclysms in a manner that touches on the style of a modern-day disaster novel.
I suspect that a Robert Harris fan and a Roman historical fan who has not read Harris before will review this offering rather differently. The only flaw I felt with this novel was that (approaching it as a historical fiction fan and being the first of Harris' books I have read) its 'new' style made it, initially, all the more intriguing and readable. Yet, by the end I felt that Harris had missed one of the tenets of historical fiction - namely to ensure its main protagonists are given a vibrancy and life that makes us want to read about them. Whilst several of the supporting actors, Ampliatus and Pliny to be precise, achieved this our main 'hero', for whom Harris goes to great lengths to stress his intellectual, honest and almost stoic mindset ends up being a character that we 'watch' rather than 'follow'. At a technical level the contrasting characterisations are excellent and clearly display Harris' class and ability to understand how to write a novel, but his literary expertise has meant the empathy with the main character is minimal at best. Simply put, the novel could have been so much more.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read!
The author uses English well, and if the reader enjoys authentically substantiated, historical fiction, this book is enjoyable. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Tamar
5.0 out of 5 stars Spoiler alert! ;-)
I did have to wonder how good a book would be when you know not only the ending but also quite a bit about the event before you start it. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Vanessa Wells
3.0 out of 5 stars First of three
It was a good read but not on par with his other two about Rome. Am very glad I read the other two first or I would not have bothered after reading this one.
Published 5 months ago by Dorothy Dewitte
5.0 out of 5 stars History brought to life
The book is based over 4 days leading up to the roman town pompeii and other surrounding towns get covered by the volcano, vesuvius. Read more
Published on March 25 2011 by Ben Nicholson
5.0 out of 5 stars Spell binding story about the days of Pompeii's eruption.
So interesting! The details of the underground water system that existed in ancient Italy were fascinating as well as the politics that surrounded the control of this system. Read more
Published on Feb. 15 2011 by Carol
4.0 out of 5 stars A short review to the point
I liked this book. Gave a good description of Pompeii. Likable characters. Gripping plot. Easy enough to read. And a story that kept moving along. Read more
Published on June 7 2010 by NorthVan Dave
4.0 out of 5 stars Very well done page-turner
Pompeii isn't great literature, let's admit that, but if you are looking for a good page-turner and have an interest in history, this is a really good choice. Read more
Published on Aug. 16 2007 by Tommy Tom Tom
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
A very enjoyable read. This book takes you out of the modern world and plops you smack dab in the center of 79AD. Read more
Published on Feb. 16 2006 by Ashley Brunt
4.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling thriller
This book is really a thriller--a page turner, if you will, in the traditional sense. Don't be put off by the premise of reading about a volcano. Read more
Published on Oct. 20 2004 by Andy Wolfe
4.0 out of 5 stars It's not about the volcano
Harris, the author of ENIGMA, FATHERLAND (another great book), and ARCHANGEL has come up with a great read. Read more
Published on July 24 2004
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