New Pompeii: Daniel Godfrey

★★★

New Pompeii: Book I

Any book which begins with a murder attempt at the British Museum is bound to catch my attention. Nick Houghton, a specialist in Roman history who’s struggling to find tenure at a university, is unwillingly caught up in the chaos. With one of his friends deeply implicated in the plot, he expects to be arrested; but instead the unthinkable happens. He is offered a job by the CEO of NovusPart, one of the most powerful and controversial companies in existence. For NovusPart has developed a technology that can cheat history, plucking people out of the ‘timeline’ and transporting them forward in time, saving them from plane crashes, death or disaster. And they’ve decided that Nick is just the person to help them out with their most recent and most ambitious project: the wholesale relocation of the population of Pompeii (in 79 AD) to the present day.

But if you saw NovusPart as a humanitarian, benevolent organisation, you’d be wrong. Of course it’s good publicity to save thousands of lives. But it also promises to open doors to all kinds of business opportunities. The Romans have been relocated to a painstaking copy of their town, hidden somewhere in the wilds of a former Soviet republic. They have no idea what’s happened, of course: they’ve been told that they’ve been saved by the great god Augustus, and the idea is that they should just get on with their lives. NovusPart are already imagining the profits they might be able to make from academics who are eager to do fieldwork on real, live Romans; or from selling authentic ancient Roman produce and handicrafts; or (at some point) from televised gladiatorial games. They have great ambitions. And the only challenge is to find a way to bring these about without letting on to the Romans.

For Nick, wandering into Pompeii is like a child stumbling into a toy-box. The men and women he sees around him have just sauntered out of the pages of his history books and he’s full of questions. Admittedly, they’re questions that no one else in NovusPart really cares about, such as: how does Roman religion actually work? What actually happens in a Roman bath? And what do all those graffitied phalli actually mean? Unfortunately it gradually dawns on Nick that he isn’t really there to wander round starry-eyed, eating in tabernae and hanging out with the locals. Whelan and McMahon, the heads of NovusPart, have other plans. But what exactly are they? And Nick isn’t the only one who has questions. In a parallel plot, a young woman called Kristen finds herself, terrifyingly, trapped in a loop of waking up, half-drowning, in her bath. Months or even years seem to pass between each awakening. What the hell is going on? Is she dreaming? Dead? Or has something much, much stranger happened to her?

There’s another very important point. The Romans aren’t stupid. These are the people who conquered most of the known world, after all. They’re not going to miss tiny but telling details, like the absence of the large volcano that (when they last looked) was on the verge of drowning them all in ash and lava; or the sudden disappearance of the sea (a bitter blow to those who make their money from garum). Parts of the town have suddenly changed their layout completely (because NovusPart’s architect made up the sectors that still haven’t been excavated). And they’re growing increasingly suspicious about the supposed unrest in the countryside, which means they’re being kept within the walls of their town. Their economy is struggling; there are too many men out of work; and there’s something very odd about these foreigners who swagger in and out of town with their bad Latin and funny names.

It strikes me that the founders of NovusPart could have learned a great deal from a certain John Hammond. Bringing the past and the present together isn’t always such a great idea. When you’re treating real animals, or people, as a living experiment, you risk things going wrong: security breaches and rebellious behaviour, not to mention unpleasant surprises like finding out your ‘subjects’ are far smarter than you thought they were. As New Pompeii begins to creak at the seams, NovusPart comes under a new threat as some of its past paradoxes threaten to catch up with it.

The concept behind this book was intriguing, but it wasn’t always carried through as successfully as I’d like. Although it’s only the first in the series, there are still a lot of loose ends left hanging and not everything fits together. Personally, I wasn’t sure how much Kristen’s subplot added to the book: while I now realise she’s important in the long run, it wasn’t ever made clear why she was transported intermittently rather than all at once. What I’m trying to say, I think, is that this is the kind of story where things get knotty very quickly, and there were points where Godfrey himself seems to have made things a tiny bit over-complicated in his zeal and didn’t always remember to follow through.

Despite that, there are some good ideas about the practical aspects of time-travel, messing with timelines and the dangers of paradoxes. Classical history, sci-fi and a dose of political corruption. What’s not to like? It reads like a mash-up between Jurassic Park, Rome and The Matrix. And let’s not overlook the fact that, if it were possible to build a functioning ancient Roman town, populated by real ancient Romans, I’d be there like a shot. And so I’m keen to follow the story in the second volume of the series, to see what the future holds both for NovusPart and for the Romans of New Pompeii.

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