Marcus Attilius Primus, known simply as 'Attilius', is the latest in a long family line of aquariuses... men who attended to the startling feats of engineering that were the Roman aquaducts. He's been appointed to the Aqua Augusta, the aquaduct which supplies fresh water to the Bay of Neapolis (present day Naples) where such towns as Herculaneum, Neapolis and Pompeii were situated in AD 79. The previous encumbant, Exomnius, has disappeared off the face of the Earth and no one has any idea where he's gone.
There have been some odd occurences lately, strange disturbances in the ground, wine glasses vibrating on tables, sulphur in the water that kills the fish in a fish-farm. Then a crisis on the Augusta aquaduct happens, a blockage has occurred, and Attilius needs to find it or the water supply to every town on the bay will dry up within a day.
Attilius thinks the aquaduct blockage is somewhere on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and suggests to the scholar and local leader, Pliny, that he be allowed to mount an expedition to find it and clear it: he will organise this expedition from Pompeii.
When he arrives in Pompeii things are naturally a lot more complicated than he imagined. Local politics and businesses are corrupt with the town being run from behind the scenes by an ex-slave, Ampliatus. Attilius further complicates things for himself by becoming attracted to Ampliatus's daughter, Corelia, who is engaged to be married, against her will, to a local politican. It's a can of worms and no mistake. And over it all looms Vesuvius and although the Aquarius realises something isn't right, neither he nor anyone else has any idea what the mountain has in store for the population around the bay.
The action in this book takes place over four days with time ticking away at the start of each chapter leading, of course, to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. It reminded me of one of those disaster movies where every now and then sub-titles come up to tell you what the time is, so by the time the actual catastrophe happens you're on the edge of your seat practically having a nervous breakdown. And it does take a while to get to the eruption itself, about page 200, so just 50 pages on the event itself. I was fine with that as the plotline is an interesting one. Given we all know what the outcome is, it was down to the author, Robert Harris, to keep the reader interested in events leading up to it and the story of the search for the cause of the problem with the aquaduct was a fascinating one. Details of how they worked kept me absorbed and the human story of Attilius and his relationships and problems kept me entertained.
The eruption itself definitely raised the level of excitement several notches though. The detail and the horror of it was very well described given the author had 'presumably' never experienced such a thing. And of course you yourself are wondering if Attilius and Corelia survive and if people you don't like will get their come-uppance. It's all very well done and I enjoyed Pompeii immensely. I've never read anything by Robert Harris before but will definitely read more now... he's written a Roman 'Cicero' trilogy which I gather is very good. I also fancy reading some non-fiction about the eruption and there is plenty I know. Mary Beard has what sounds like a good book out, The Fires of Vesuvius. I may break my not very strict book buying ban and treat myself to that. I have to say I'm finding Ancient Rome a far more interesting subject than I would ever have imagined.