If I had to sum up my reaction to New Pompeii in one sentence it would be this: interesting premise, uninspiring execution.
That’s not to say that it contains no positive features, as it definitely does, but I was largely underwhelmed by the plot, narration and characters.
Before I elaborate, here’s a quick blurb from GoodReads:
In the near future, energy giant Novus Particles develops the technology to transport objects and people from the deep past to the present. Their biggest secret: New Pompeii. A replica of the city hidden deep in central Asia, filled with Romans pulled through time a split second before the volcano erupted.
Historian Nick Houghton doesn’t know why he’s been chosen to be the company’s historical advisor. He’s just excited to be there. Until he starts to wonder what happened to his predecessor. Until he realizes that NovusPart have more secrets than even the conspiracy theorists suspect.
Until he realizes that NovusPart have underestimated their captives…
First of all, I’ll say what I did like about New Pompeii. I found the descriptions of the titular town intriguing, both in creating an unnerving atmosphere of silent hostility and wariness from the Pompeiians towards the modern visitors, as well as conveying the strangeness and inexplicable familiarity of this ancient culture through modern eyes.
I also like how the novel begins in media res, so rather than having to endure pages of lumbering exposition we’re able to pick up pertinent information about the world as we read on.
The most engaging passages are from the perspective of the woman in the bath, and the continued mystery of her identity and relevance create an enjoyable air of dark suspense throughout the novel, of which I won’t say too much for obvious reasons.
However, the most important part of any book for me is the characters, and if I find the characters uninteresting or find it difficult to empathise with them, the plot has to be pretty spectacular to make up for it. I think you can guess what I’m about to say next.
Most of the characters in New Pompeii – to put it bluntly – annoyed me; I found most of them lacking in depth, and their motivations came across as shallow and not stemming organically from the characters themselves as a result.
Several characters were so exaggeratedly obnoxious it seemed clear that their only purpose was to provide the story with antagonists, which was- as someone who likes complexity and shades of grey in their villains- slightly disappointing. The only moment where they showed signs of possessing layers was towards the end, which was for me too little, too late.
Unfortunately, the characterisation of the protagonist didn’t make up for the disappointing antagonists. At the risk of sounding excessively harsh, Nick struck me as overwhelmingly insipid and largely lacking in distinctive feelings and thoughts. He suffers from the same issue as the villains; there’s not much insight into his motivations beyond oblique hints about a difficult relationship with his father and snide references to the third-rate nature of his university and academic prospects. Nick’s one redeeming quality is his true appreciation and respect of the Romans transported from Pompeii and their culture, which did endear him to me slightly.
During the second half of the novel, the pace speeds up immensely and becomes full of twists and revelations, leading to a climactic denouement in which all is finally revealed. I found myself racing to finish the book just get the answers to all my questions, but when I had actually finished it I was left with a rather hollow feeling; beyond the thrill of the ride there’s not much emotional payoff as you aren’t really that invested in the characters.
On second reading, it seems slightly rushed and confusing and you end up with grand epiphanies every other page and long chunks of exposition, essentially characters explaining things to other characters, rather than anything interesting happening or being said.
The ideas explored about the potentially terrifying consequences of changing history are interesting, but in my view the novel wasn’t particularly successful in conveying just how important and terrifying these stakes are.
I would recommend New Pompeii if you are a fan of thrillers with elements of sci-fi and historical fiction, but if you value character over plot you may be disappointed.
+I was immediately turned off when a racist term was casually thrown out in the first few pages; I understand the novel is in no way condoning the use of this language, but in my opinion, the point that a character is unpleasant could be made in a million other ways.
+This is very niche but the novel was desperately lacking in references to the first book in the Cambridge Latin Course series. I mean, would it have been so hard to slip in a ‘Caecilius est in horto’? Did Clemens make it to the future? These are the important questions.
+While I was reading I was struck with the idea that the book could have been immensely improved if Nick was replaced by a female classicist. Think about it: it instantly provokes interesting scenarios by complicating how their presence is received in Pompeii, as well as allowing for commentary of the treatment of women in academia through depicting the second-class status of women in Roman society.
+Read the excellent and genuinely chilling TimeRiders series by Alex Scarrow which deals with similar themes- another instance of how YA fiction is generally underrated and underappreciated.
Header Image Credits: ElfQrin via Wikipedia Body Image Credits: Seeta Parmar