Robert Harris gets two books mentioned this month as each have one word titles. When I started this 12 in 12 Challenge in January I thought that I would not repeat an author across the whole 144 titles I anticipated reading – I broke that self-imposed rule very quickly. This is, however, the first month that I have featured two books by the same author and I defend it to myself by pointing out that they are very different books (although both set in what is now Italy). I would also point out that it is the second book this month that features a volcano.
Pompeii is set over three days at the time of the famous eruption of Vesuvius but the volcano is not the main theme of the book. The story actually revolves around water and how it is supplied through aqueducts and pipes to ancient towns. The reader, however, knows what the characters in the story do not, that at any time this town, its civilisation and its people will be wiped out. This makes the book full of tension for the reader whilst the characters just notice occasional things which happen that they don’t understand and find concerning.
Marcus Attilius Primus is a water engineer from a family of such engineers who has come to Pompeii to replace the missing chief engineer. He needs to gain the trust of the slaves and freemen who work for him and who are hostile. He also needs to find out what has happened to his predecessor. Then the water unexpectedly dries up and he has to determine what has caused this and fix it before all the Mediterranean coastal towns run dry. Along the way he becomes embroiled with a brutal ex-slave who is now a major business man, a threatening slave, a young woman who hates her father and the local admiral who has a fascination for keeping records.
This book taught me more about the Roman water system than I thought that I wanted to know but I actually found it fascinating. Although I knew about aqueducts and so on I had no idea of the engineering that went into building and maintaining them. The information is vital to the story and I felt that it was well integrated into the narrative. The use of the water theme links together lots of events and characters but also shows how the eruption would have appeared to people on the ground.
I really enjoyed this book and whizzed through it because I found it very readable. I liked the different aspects of the story which were well woven together – corruption, the role of slaves, patronage, class, cruelty and how Roman bureaucracy worked. I enjoyed the main character who is trying to do the best job possible in difficult circumstances and I found the slow revelation of the eruption interesting. This is a well put together and very readable crime novel/adventure story.