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This review is from: Pompeii (Paperback)
This book was strongly recommended to me by a friend (I've previously enjoyed the author's Fatherland and Enigma), and I remembered it in time for a trip we took to you-know-where a couple of weeks ago. My wife read it first, and pronounced it gripping; I'd concur with her assessment. Harris provides a human dimension to the destruction of Pompeii by weaving a story around Marcus Attilius, the engineer in charge of the aqueduct supplying water to the cities of the Bay of Naples. The action is tightly focussed around the eruption of Vesuvius: the story opens two days before that event and closes on its second and final day.
Given this compressed timescale, and what the reader knows is about to happen, the story is an exciting one which fairly whips along. Less effort is spent on characterization: although there's been some attempt to make them plausible and interesting, I don't think this really succeeds - even in the case of the protagonist: although he's clearly intended to be a well-rounded character, I found I didn't have much interest in whether he survived (of course, that could be due to my own failings, rather than his). Somewhat improbably, my lack of concern increased after the eruption had happened, as a meeting between him and two other characters was set up (or perhaps the word should be 'engineered') that I found difficult to believe.
I was more interested in the actions of Pliny, the philosopher and military commander, but that was probably because he was a real person, and his nephew (also portrayed briefly here) provided a famous eye-witness account of the eruption (and what happened to his uncle) in his letters. Harris uses that account more or less verbatim here (with complete attribution), and the voice of history provides a sense of realism which - ultimately - makes the deadly, capricious volcano the most interesting character in the book.