Marcus Attilius Primus becomes the new Aquarius of the Aqua Augusta after the previous Aquarius, Exomnius, disappears without a trace. Unbeknowst to him, he has arrived in the Bay of Naples just 2 days before Mount Vesuvius is due to erupt in 79 AD. He is charged with repairing the Aqueduct, which has failed at the hottest time of the year, leaving the inhabitants parched and in desperate need of water. With this intent, he heads off to Pompeii and Vesuvius to find and fix the source of the problem. What awaits him in Pompeii, however, is corruption and negligence, exacerbated by the fact that the water is still flowing in Pompeii, where they are more interested in their own comfort and indulgences than in the good of the region. The story follows his struggle to repair the aqueduct and to figure out what is causing the strange events happening all around the city.
Of course the reader knows what’s going to happen, or at least that the mountain will blow, but despite the lack of suspense in the larger sense, Harris tells a really good tale. His depiction of Roman life with all its excesses and cruelties is vivid and engrossing, even if you’re not a history buff. The thought he put into the novel is evident in small events in the story prior to the explosion, such as the fish dying in the farms on the coast, tremors etc. Then, these things were considered ill omens, which they are really, but today we would have recognized them for what they were, impending doom for the region. Harris must have done extensive research into vulcanology in order to write this book so detailed and so well. What I especially appreciated were the short excepts from scientific journals before each of the chapters. They not only served to reinforce the telling of the story, but were interesting too.
It’s funny that when I think of the story line, it’s really rather a simple one, but it’s so chock full of detail that it seems more complicated that it really is. I think that that’s what makes this a great book for me, it’s detailed to the minute, but never, ever boring. Harris really knows how to grab your interest even without a soap opera or Hollywood thriller schema. 5 out of 5 with a recommendation for everyone, history buff or not.