By: Robert Harris (Ballantine Books, 278 pp., 2003)
Concerning: Four days surrounding the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, told primarily from the point of view of a young “aquarius” (i.e., aqueduct engineer) trying to get to the bottom of ominous portents and a mysterious disappearance.
Quote: “Even as he took half a pace toward her something hit the tiled roof behind him and bounced off into the garden. A light stone, the size of a child’s fist. He saw it land. Another struck the pergola. And suddenly it was dusk and the air was full of missiles. He was being hit repeatedly on the head and shoulders. Frothy rocks, they looked to be: a whitish petrified sponge. They weren’t heavy but they stung. It was like being caught in a sudden hailstorm – a warm, dark, dry hailstorm, if such a thing were imaginable.”
Verdict: It’s almost delightful in the way it follows the classic structure of disaster movies – I half expected the main character to say “This was not an aqueduct accident!” There’s even a rich, evil conspirator with a beautiful young daughter. Apart from the exciting page-turning aspects, there’s a terrific portrayal of Pliny the Elder (whose presence on the scene is one of those stranger-than-fiction details that I looked up to confirm). Plus, it fosters a surprising amount of appreciation for the Roman aqueduct system – and pretty much any huge municipal public works project. If you step back and think about how elaborate and complicated, say, your own city water/sewer system is, it could boggle the mind. Plus, the volcanic destruction at the climax is appropriately spectacular. The funny thing is, part of the reason I read this is because Sweetness was reading a Pompeii-related tale from the "Magic Treehouse" series.