New Pompeii | Daniel Godfrey | 2016 | Titan Books | 462p | Review copy | Buy the book
Nick Houghton specialises in historical ‘What If’ puzzles that grab the public’s attention. Unfortunately, funders are less keen and Nick’s career at a third-rate university hangs by a thread. The only thing saving it is his father’s illustrious historical reputation but unfortunately, thanks to a recent scandal, that reputation is now far less illustrious than it is tarnished. Professional salvation comes from an unexpected quarter.
The company Novus Particles has been much in the news of late. It has achieved the seemingly impossible and discovered Time Travel, although only in one direction. People can be pulled from the past into the future – not the other way around and not from within the last thirty years. Not that this stops a whole lot of people from clamouring at the company’s door for their nearest and dearest to be resurrected. There is another condition – people can only be pulled from the past if they would have died otherwise, so that the timeline will not be altered. This has its limitations and isn’t always entirely successful, as seen by the company’s recent experiment in bringing into the present the victims of a plane crash from the past. But Novus Particles is ready for something a little more ambitious.
Nick Houghton is hired as historical consultant for the New Pompeii project. Thousands of Pompeii’s inhabitants were dragged out of the past during the Vesuvian eruption and placed in a modern rebuild of Pompeii located somewhere in Russia. The modern observers have their own villa at the heart of the reconstructed city but, as far as the Romans are concerned, this is the original Pompeii and they have been saved from volcanic death by divine agents. A historian such as Nick is captivated and he throws himself into the past. But meanwhile there is the Bedder in the Bath, Kirsten, a young woman trapped in a bubble of time, who, better than anyone, has reason to know that Novus Particles is not all as it seems.
New Pompeii has a most intriguing premise and I loved the sound of it. I am, after all, a big fan of science fiction thrillers almost as much as I’m a fan of all things Roman. The novel instantly sucked me in and the pages flew by thanks to the characters of Kirsten and Nick. Kirsten’s predicament in particular is utterly fascinating while Nick’s career is about to take an extraordinary leap. There is such a good mix of thrills and hidden menace. Novus Particles is sinister but the truth is revealed only very slowly. There are puzzles here that go hand in hand with the paradoxes and fluxes of time travel that are so fun to encounter – and puzzle over until you get a headache – in time slip and time travel thrillers.
But the big issue for me in New Pompeii is the new Pompeii. Unfortunately, in this case, I’m lumbered with a background in Roman archaeology as well as a huge interest in Pompeii which has led to several visits over the past. I’m by no means an expert but I am familiar with the subject and place. And not once did I believe in the New Pompeii scenario and this meant that, for me, the rest of the mystery suffered. It was also neglected. I wanted to know far more about Kirsten, about Nick’s father, about people thrown into the future from the present, but instead more time was spent on what felt like a tourist’s guided tour of Pompeii.
I think that the main problem for me is that I don’t think the Romans would have fallen for it, no matter how many magical ‘divine’ tricks and distracting gladiatorial displays they were shown. Excuses might be found for why the sea didn’t lap up against the docks anymore, for why people can’t leave the city walls, or even for the complete disappearance of Vesuvius, but there are other hills around Pompeii and then there’s the climate, the light. I can’t believe that Romans would be so daft.
It is fair to say, though, that if this had been built around something other than Romans I might have been more ready to go along with it. But the science is not as well substantiated as it is in Michael’s Crichton’s excellent science fiction thrillers. I’m very happy to believe the unbelievable in thrillers and regularly do just that but this time it didn’t work for me. However, there are sections here that are thoroughly intriguing and left me wanting much more, notably Kirsten’s story, which will stay with me for quite a while.