New Pompeii: what did the Romans ever do to us?

Book cover: New Pompeii - Daniel Godfrey (a city slipping through an hourglass into a volcano)Nick Houghton is running out of time. His father’s disgrace and a straitened economy look set to ruin his academic career. When a shadowy corporation make him an offer too good to refuse, he doesn’t. What classicist could say no to the chance to go to Pompeii?

New Pompeii is a big concept, and it’s reasonably well-executed. Novus Particles are a tech company who have spun money out of thin air, its Cambridge founders rolling in wealth and influence. Its well-guarded technology is a form of time travel – and its latest endeavour is to aggressively pursue new monetisation strategies (yes, there’s a press release of corpspeak).

Time travel is problematic, of course, so there are plenty of naysayers. Ripping someone out of their timeline may have unthought of consequences – although you’d never know, as history would change as soon as you did so. This is both a reasonable concern and a pretty big get of plot tangles free card…

However, Novus Part appear altruistic. They proved their technical credentials by saving the passengers of an aeroplane crash (it’s not their fault that some subsequently committed suicide); now they’ve move on to bigger game – they have snatched (most of) the population of Pompeii from right under Vesuvius’s nose.

How could I resist a pitch like this? It’s Jurassic Park-scale hubris combined with the Roman Empire; of course I wanted to read it. Unfortunately, Godfrey is no Crichton (and given how many quibbles I have with Jurassic Park that didn’t have to be a bad thing) – while New Pompeii feels well-researched, there’s barely a character in sight and – if it’s less sexist than Jurassic Park, it’s only because it barely remembers women exist in the first place.

That said, it’s entertaining enough and it rockets along at a fine pace. I devoured most of it in a single sitting – the prose isn’t elegant, but it’s easy reading – as I was sucked in by the concept and then sufficiently intrigued to find out what would happen next.

It’s a shame that Nick has no character to speak of – he’s a vehicle for plot, but we never even discover what he teaches or what his (unsuccessful) research pitch is. Everybody in his life is a shit: his father is a condescending asshat (especially considering it’s his disgrace – and we’re teased by this for no good reason; what did Professor Houghton do? When we finally find out it’s irrelevant and anticlimactic; I’m not sure why it wasn’t made clear from the start) and his best friend is unreliable and self-absorbed.

…although so is pretty much every character except Kirsten (apparently the ghost of a murder victim haunting the Cambridge college the NovusPart founders attended). Harold McMahon is the archetypal self-involved CEO too used to having his every whim obeyed; Mark Whelan is the ruthless COO with the military fetish (and pictures of Stalin on his wall). Robert Astridge, the architect, is presumably acting out an entire back story we never see, his fragile ego served by belittling everyone he sees; his wife – or is she? – Maggie a snob with neither agency nor role to play in the narrative.

The Romans, thankfully, are far more interesting. Manius Calpurnius Barbatus is self-important and cut his teeth on the politics of Caligula (sorry, the Emperor Gaius); his daughter Calpurnia is intelligent and far too briefly seen – there’s a better version of this book where she does more than scare Nick with her perspicacity. Felix almost manages to be tragic in spite of his minimal page time. When the tensions begin to build, it’s not hard to root for the Romans rather than the unpleasant modern businessmen (and that’s before it becomes clear they really are time-napping people to protect their own interests, and have a trail of bodies that a deranged Roman Emperor might be proud of).

The question isn’t whether things will go wrong, but when and how – it was enough to keep me reading, and I enjoyed the building tensions and inevitable eruption of hostilities. I think Daniel Godfrey has some decent ideas; I hope he’ll learn to make his characters more interesting. This is the first in a trilogy, which may explain the large number of loose ends; although it stands alone and I’m not dying to read the next one.

All in all, New Pompeii feels more like a cheap B-movie than a blockbuster, but it has promise and is certainly an easy way to lose an evening.