“City on Fire: A Novel of Pompeii” by Tracy Higley is a novel that I found by chance when touring the Pompeii exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. After walking through the exhibit, there was a gift shop set up of all sorts of Pompeii-related trinkets that you could buy including a book section. One of my companions picked up this book and then offered to let me read it first. There was a certain amount of hesitation on my part simply because I do not enjoy when others read my new books first, then there was the added hesitation of not wanting to be responsible for getting the book back to her in a timely manner. After the trip to the museum the book got placed on the table and other things soon were stacked on top of it. It wasn’t until I was reminded that the book was in my possession that I dug it up and started to read it.
“City on Fire” is set in the time of Pompeii before Vesuvius erupted and obliterated the town. The novel follows three different characters, Maius – a corrupt politician with the run of Pompeii, Cato – a politician that moved to Pompeii to make wine and get away from the political corruption in Rome, and Ariella – a runaway Jewish slave turned gladiator. I do enjoy this writing technique where multiple characters tell the story. “City on Fire” gives a glimpse into the world as it was back then. In many ways the world was a different place and at the same time there were a lot of similarities that show that not all that much has changed in the world.
As much as I enjoyed reading the different perspectives, I found myself enjoying Maius’s thoughts the most. His reasoning behind so much was cocky and comical at the same time. “Men of any status could be controlled, Maius had long ago learned. Each required a different tactic, but he had mastered them all. For the pleasure-seeking vacationers from the city, Maius was the beneficent host, and few of them cared to concern themselves with local politics. His money had purchased much of the town and its surrounding fields, and most of the lower classes were in his employ. For the wealthy townspeople, whose chief pursuits were leisure and distraction, he had informants well placed in many households, and the secrets he kept were as good as chains around the nobility. And for those who could be neither bought nor blackmailed, there was always the effective, if conventional, threat of violence.” (City on Fire, pg 56).
Then there was the part in the story where Maius was beginning to feel threatened by Cato’s presence in Pompeii and tries to come up with the best way to take him down. “Yes…his sister. There was weakness there. Like his mother, apparently, Cato suffered from a disadvantage ill suited to political life – compassion. And that weakness could be exploited.” (City on Fire, pg 113). And then later when he is once again feeling the threat of Cato. “A cushioned chaise sat near the central fountain, and Maius forced himself to recline, for pacing showed a certain amount of weakness, of fretfulness, and he had no need for such things.” (City on Fire, pg 200).
Would I recommend this book? Probably not – there wasn’t anything great about this novel. It was written well enough and the topic was interesting enough, however I just never felt myself drawn to it. When the book was over I wasn’t yearning for more. This book was almost like fast food. It tasted fine while I read it but when it was over, it was over. I do not feel compelled to find and read the rest of Tracy Higley’s novels. Nor do I see myself pushing anyone to read this.