The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 must rank as the most famous volcanic eruption in all of history, even over such titanic eruptions as Krakatoa, or such well-covered events as Mt. Saint Hellens. Of course, Vesuvius got extensive coverage at the time, with Pliny the Elder’s eyewitness account doing much to show just what a large eruption can do to a heavily-populated area. And of course, the uncovering of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the Twentieth Century has been a big boon to archaeology, and the fame of the event.

So, Robert Harris’ historical novel has a fairly solid set of known facts to build around. And he does a great job at structuring the novel around the timetable of events, and knowing that no matter what, the eruption is going to be the main star, keeps everything constrained to four days. Pliny the Elder comes in as a notable secondary character, and his known activities are part of the structure of the book.

The overall story itself is a little less successful. We start with the newly-appointed aquarius (literally ‘water carrier’, but here more ‘chief engineer’) Attilius of the Aqua Augusta aqueduct dealing with a recalcitrant crew, and a drought in southern Italy. There’s a bit of a mystery in the works, as the previous aquarius just up disappeared a couple weeks ago. This theme slowly deepens, with Attilius getting more concerned with just what exactly happened, especially as various people clam up when asked about him. Sadly, this gets somewhat summarily tossed out partway through, leaving the book to focus entirely on the natural disaster aspect. It does serve to properly introduce characters for proper impact during the final bits, but the novel as a whole feels a bit out of tune since it can’t quite decide what it wants to be.

Still, the writing is good, the overall depiction of Roman culture in the First Century AD feels well done, with a tight cast of characters instead of the ‘cast of thousands’ for an epic story somewhat typical of the ‘disaster’ genre. The overall action keeps up a good pace, and moves the reader along without bogging down, even (especially) as it goes into some of the technical details of Roman engineering.