A certain degree of predictability is inevitable in a novel such as this. We know that sooner or later, Vesuvius is going to pop her top and an awful lot of people will get killed. Predictability as such needn't matter: an ancient Greek audience knew exactly what was going to happen when they sat down to watch the latest play from Sophocles. Predictability does not necessarily denote cliché. Robert Harris, unfortunately, is no Sophocles, and the clichés here abound like bunny rabbits.
His hero is one Marcus Attilius Primus, who is aquarius or water-engineer for the entire Bay of Naples conurbation in 79AD. Marcus is an oasis of square-jawed decency on this Roman Costa del Crime, a seething horde of pimps and prostitutes, felons and fraudsters, dubious merchants and bent politicians. Marcus's only concern, however, is the great aqueduct that supplies the entire region, and why it has suddenly run dry. For this is no ordinary leak or blockage. It is as if something seismic, catastrophic, has happened. Or is going to happen. But of course, the fools in authority won't listen...
Harris colourfully evokes the sights and sounds of the ancient world: the "golden beaks and fan-tail sterns" of the warships out in the bay; the "Egyptians with gold rings in their ears, great muscled Nubians as black as charcoal". He is also genuinely in awe of the great feats of Roman engineering, and his awe is infectious.
The problems arise with character and plot. There is the poor little rich girl whom Marcus loves - but only after his own beautiful young wife has died. A hero should always have a beautiful young wife who has died. It gives him the glamorous aura of tragedy, while freeing him to cop off with a still younger and more beautiful girl and still retain his unimpeachable morals. That girl is Corelia Ampliata, "eighteen, perhaps," and with breasts of a "milky plumpness" to boot. But she is the daughter of his deadliest enemy, a man who not only mistreats his slaves, but also wears "crocus oil, the most expensive unguent", the rotter.
The other oleaginous baddies can be identified, as so often in Classical-period film and fiction, by the fact that they are always in the baths, and usually receiving a rather too intimate massage from some handsome Greek catamite. But Marcus and his gal win out in the end, against all odds, skipping away over the mountains in their nighties, hand in hand. Well, almost.
Despite these irksome banalities, however, people who read historical fiction as an easy way to digest their history will get plenty out of this. I spotted only one outright howler, perhaps the result of carelessness rather than ignorance. At a banquet, guests are served "mice rolled in honey and poppy seeds". Not even the nutritionally promiscuous Romans would eat a mouse. Harris means the edible dormouse here, a quite different rodent. I ate one in Turkey, and it was delicious.