Review: Pompeii

Robert Harris (2003)

This book was as much fun to read as I thought Krakatoa was going to be, (but it wasn’t and this was.) Granted, Pompeii is fiction, but it’s chock full of color, detail and history. It didn’t get bogged down in the science only to have the drama sucked right out of the material, as was the case for me with Krakatoa. Pompeii on the other hand, is a great example of the “…and you are there” style of historical fiction, and it’s exciting to boot.

The story doesn’t waste much time getting started with low rumblings in the mountain and it reads quickly through to the inevitable conclusion. Pompeii is a lot like the Titanic–you know how it’s going to end, but it’s thrilling none-the-less. You go along for the ride to experience (through words, or on the screen) what it might have been like to live through the disaster and to see which characters live, or die, and how.

Harris has created an engaging narrator, a Roman engineer named Attilius who’s assigned to oversee the aqueduct near Pompeii (a position called an Aquarius.) Having the main character be an Aquarius is a brilliant touch. It allows Harris to give details about geology, architecture, Roman life, custom and superstition that are informative and in context with the story. Attilius is the first person to sense there’s something very wrong (or at least very odd) going on. As he begins to connect the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor to drastically diminishing water levels and strange sulphuric smells the clock is ticking and its only a quick 200 quick pages before all hell breaks loose.

Other than the Aquarius, characters in Pompeii aren’t the most completely developed you’ll ever encounter on the page. But for a summertime book that reads like the well-developed treatment for an action movie, Pompeii satisfies. This Volcanic Titanic is Jerry Bruckheimer’s dream come true–Mystery! Romance! Intrigue! Thrills! Explosions! Molten earth reigning down! A cloud of poisonous gas! The special effects possibilities boggle the mind.

Pompeii shares another similarity to James Cameron’s Titanic–a romance set against the backdrop of disaster. Some critics took issue with the budding romance between Attilius and the daughter of a heartless former slave turned wealthy businessman, complaining that it got in the way of the story. I didn’t really object and thought it served as a convincing device to get the hero into the thick of the action when he rushes back to Pompeii to save the woman he loves from certain death. What better way to get a man to run toward the melee, rather than fleeing from it, which is no fun at all. At least not for the reader. [****]

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4 Responses

  1. Kathryn

    Yeah, you noticed. Work has been much more stressful than usual, so I’ve been escaping into lighthearted TV comedies on DVD (As Time Goes By, Gilmore Girls.) And yet, my choices in reading material, through no concious choice really, have all fit a much darker theme. Right now I’m reading a scifi thriller about biotech gone bad in a kind of post-apocalyptic world. Hmmm…

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