“Like Crichton at his best,” proclaims the pull-quote on the front cover of Daniel Godfrey’s New Pompeii. I suppose I should have taken that as a warning…
The problem with novels involving time travel is paradox. The problem with paradox in novels is that novels, generally, rely on the existence of cause-and-effect. This happens, so that happens, so the climax and denouement makes sense and offers some sense of narrative satisfaction. Paradox puts a spanner in the whole works. Paradox makes the wheels come off. Paradox screws everything up.
I hate paradox. And New Pompeii relies on it.
Which is not to say I would have found New Pompeii particularly entertaining even absent its love affair with paradox. It’s competently written, after the fashion of a thriller: short sentences, short chapters, minimal characterisation. In its favour, it is relatively well-informed about Roman society and culture—much more so, at least, than several other time-travel novels that involved Romans. In its disfavour… well.
Nick Houghton is the son of a disgraced academic. He’s been working on his own academic career, but hasn’t quite got his act together to get his actual PhD—he’s apparently spent several years employed in some unofficial capacity in a London university without one, which in a field like Classics seems to strain plausibility, and he also doesn’t seem too worried about his student loans. When his deadbeat friend Ronnie ropes him into a piece of dangerous activism, disrupting a presentation by speakers from the giant energy company NovusPart—an energy company that controls the practical applications of time travel technology—Nick finds himself offered a job instead of being arrested or disappeared.
NovusPart want a historical advisor for their latest project: a reconstruction of the ancient town-city of Pompeii, complete with all the original inhabitants who could be rescued from the eruption of 79 CE. (NovusPart is not big on informed consent: None of the Romans have been informed that they’ve been moved in time, and NovusPart’s excuses for keeping the townspeople confined to the town and its immediate surroundings are beginning to grow thin. The leaders of the town aren’t stupid, but NovusPart are treating them as if they were.)
While Nick makes friends with a Roman magistrate and his daughter, Calpurnia—a clever woman who wants to know why all the town’s carrots are now orange, and why the chickens are so much bigger than usual—and enemies among the NovusPart staff, in a bathtub in Cambridge, a young woman believes she’s a ghost. Kirsten Chapman keeps waking up in the bath. She discovers she can pass through walls. And time passes—a lot of it—between each of her awakenings.
Of course, Kirsten’s chapters aren’t timestamped, any more than Nick’s are, so quite a bit of the book passes before we realise how far the two main narrative strands (although it’s a bit of a stretch to call Kirsten’s narrative strand a “main” one) lie apart in time. That’s a bit frustrating. And all the more frustrating, since there are hints of conspiracies and plots going on in the background, left unexplained—or even retconned, if I may use that word, into non-existence—by the paradoxes unveiled at the conclusion.
It’s a competent book. I expect I’d be rather less irritated by New Pompeii if the vast majority of its characters weren’t white (presumably straight) Englishmen. There are three women in this book, and none of them have high-status occupations like “professor,” or “translator,” or “inventor,” or “head of multinational corporation”—or even interesting ones. Kirsten changes people’s bedlinens and empties their bins. Calpurnia is portrayed as clever but has barely any time on the page, and the third—I cannot remember what the third does for a living, since every time she appears, she’s mentioned in reference to her young son, and her cluelessness about Roman culture is highlighted.
It’s my own fault for having higher standards. I’ve been reading by preference pretty much nothing but books by women and books by men who include women—like Max Gladstone and Charlie Stross and Django Wexler—for a few years now. It comes as a shock to read a book that’s not good at women, these days—I mean, not cringingly eye-searingly bad, but just not good. I notice it, where before I wouldn’t.
In conclusion: New Pompeii. It’s the first book in a series. It’s not bad, and it even has its good points. If you’re looking for a Michael Crichton-esque thriller, I guess it might work for you. My overall response, though?
Let’s just say I’m not about to erupt with enthusiasm.
New Pompeii is available now from Titan Books.