4.0 out of 5 stars A natural history page-turning thriller!
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...
Published on Oct. 14 2005 by Paul Weiss
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3.0 out of 5 stars Harris starts to return to form after the disaster that was "Archangel"
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...
Published on Aug. 19 2006 by David Ljunggren
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Harris starts to return to form after the disaster that was "Archangel",
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.
4.0 out of 5 stars A natural history page-turning thriller!,
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!
The resolution of Exomnius' disappearance and the discovery of the theft of water by Numerius Popidius Ampliatus, an ex-slave and now Pompeii's wealthiest citizen, serve as a springboard for Harris' outstanding description of an extraordinary cross section of daily life in the ancient Roman provinces - slaves vs freemen, men vs women, and children, the luxury and indolence of the wealthy vs the difficulties and squalid conditions of the poor, politicians vs their constituency, the use of the "games" as a means of distracting and buying off the general population, the baths, and the Roman diet. His charming portrayal of Pliny the Elder and the discussions surrounding the aqueduct problem will amaze and delight readers with the surprising level of sophistication of Roman science and engineering.
Sadly, the denouement after the eruption and Harris' winding down of the romantic involvement of Marcus Attilius with Cordelia Ampliata, who is promised under a contract of marriage to one of Pompeii's leading politicos, just doesn't come anywhere close to the standards of the first three-quarters of the book! What might have been a five-star book that I was tempted to place in my "Top Ten All-Time" list became merely good as I closed the covers on the final few chapters! Too bad, for sure, but 4-star recommendations are nothing to sniff at! Pompeii was well worth my time and I enjoyed it immensely.
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting attempt....,
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.
The story concerns the newly promoted Aquarius in charge of the aqueduct whom we find on the opening day searching for spring water and discovering very quickly that a breach in the aqueduct around the area of Vesuvius has both contaminated the water and then prevented its flow. In a humanising touch our erstwhile hero leaps to rescue a hapless slave who is being killed at Misenum's Villa Hortensia by the owner, freedman Numerius Popidius Ampliatus (who controls the surrounding areas through his plutocracy and also has the best line in the entire novel on page 134 of the hardback version: "there's no safer investment than property in Pompeii") after his prized red mullet fish are found floating in their pool. To complete the introduction we are offered a tantalising sub-plot love theme with the introduction of his eighteen year old daughter, Corelia, the usual struggle to assert himself over his new team with the oversee Corax leaping on every chance to undermine him, and a mystery in the disappearance of the previous Aquarius, Exomnius.
After explaining to the historical Pliny the Elder his beliefs, Marius sails at all speed to Pompeii to locate the fault in the Augusta and gets tied up in Ampliatus' obseqiuous and mendacious generosity whilst searching out the truth behind Exomnius' disappearance. This we eventually discover and a disappointing sense of anti-climax arrives when we discover how and why he has disappeared. Corelia runs away to tell Marius that her father wants him dead, leading to the inevitable showdown with Corax. So, after two thirds of the novel, we come to the eruption where Harris focuses on fictionalising the Younger Pliny's letters, following Pliny as he tries to save the people fleeing Herculaneum and Pompeii, eventually dying on the beach at Stabiae and then follows Marius' herculean efforts as he races to Pompeii to save Corelia which he does in neat fashion using the Aqua Augusta as a means of escaping.
I just felt that Harris' was more concerned with writing about the technical aspects of ancient engineering and vulcanology than giving due attention to character empathy. Given everyone knows the main plot then the focus (and thereby the interest) had to be on the sub plots which are a tad cliched and weak. It is particularly emphasized at the very end when the eruption ends and so does the book, somewhat abruptly.
So, extremely well written, historically and scientifically accurate, the characterisations are very good and precise, but....whilst what we are given character-wise is good, it is not enough and results in a lack of empathy from the reader. For any fan of Roman historical fiction this is worth reading as the quality of the author shines through and the narrative style is very different to the usual offerings...it is just that, by the end, it could have been a McCullough...but didn't aspire to those dizzy heights.
4.0 out of 5 stars It's not about the volcano,
By A Customer
Harris, the author of ENIGMA, FATHERLAND (another great book), and ARCHANGEL has come up with a great read. The main character of this riveting novel is Marcus Attilus Primus whose job is trying to convince Pliny the Elder, a Roman admiral, to give him a ship to sail to Pompeii and find the source of an aqueduct problem. All this while Mt. Vesuvius is getting ready to blow. But the volcano isn't the real problem at least not just yet. The citizens of Pompeii are all pieces of work themselves and their attempted undoing of the main character reads like a modern soap opera (this is a good thing, meaning that there's actually a plot and some connections--go figure). The volcano mearly adds to the climax of the novel, and with Harris's masterful timeing, this is guaranteed to be the best book you're read in years.
Also recommended: BARK OF THE DOGWOOD by McCrae
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. With a plot worthy of John Grisham (though a totally different setting--no courtrooms here) and gorgeous writing like you'll find in the books of Jackson McCrae (think his "Bark of the Dogwood") this literary achievement is sure to please. The volcano doesn't really get going until the end, so that's not the focal point of this book. The real characters are the expertly crafted Attilius, Pliny the Elder, and Corelia, the defiant daugher of a vile real estate speulator. The interaction between these people is as real as if you were reading about something happening today. Harris' writing is sure and beautiful, and the time will fly by reading this book.
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. It's so realistic you can almost view the events as they are happening. I love how at the beginning of every chapter he takes snipits from modern texts to explain what is happening. It's an excellent way to see how the thinking back then is so different from now. I can't wait to read more from this author. Highly recommended.
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read!,
This review is from: Pompeii (Kindle Edition)
The author uses English well, and if the reader enjoys authentically substantiated, historical fiction, this book is enjoyable. I liked in particular, the volcanology citations supporting the description of the cataclysm in which the story's embedded.
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. However, Robert Harris delivered with a nice little twist at the end. I also appreciated learning more about Roman technology through the point of view he used. A good read!
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.
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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. Marcus Attilius is a wonderful character and the book follows his discoveries, engineering talents, attempts to help all manner of people and his hopes for love. Very well written and easy to read ... hard to put down.
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Pompeii by Robert Harris (Hardcover - 2003)
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