Monday, July 12, 2010

Napoleon's Pyramids

I had high hopes for Napoleon’s Pyramids. It promised a lot: a swashbuckling hero, a mysterious medallion, an evil count, and an Indiana Jones-esque adventure to unlock the secrets of the pyramids. I’ve learned to be skeptical though about stories that sound too good to be true. There’s always something wrong. The hero is unlikable, the Maguffin is dull, the villain is unbelievable, or the adventure is a bait-and-switch that promises much more than it ever intended to deliver. Napoleon’s Pyramids has none of these problems. It’s exactly what it claims to be and so much more.

Ethan Gage is a fantastic hero. He’s an American living in France in 1798. He’s the former apprentice of Benjamin Franklin and a Freemason. He’s a much better former apprentice than he is a secret society member though. He barely understands the origins of the basic Masonic symbols, much less posses any real secrets. His big flaw is that he has no purpose. He doesn’t believe in anything, so he flits from whorehouse to card game and back again. Which is really a cool place for a charming rogue to begin his story, but many authors would fear to let him grow out of that. I know because I’ve read their books. Not Dietrich though. Gage’s journey changes him as much as it thrills his readers.

It all starts with chemin de fer and Gage’s winning an odd pendant that was supposedly once owned by both Cleopatra and Cagliostro. Immediately his life changes for the worse with bad guys chasing him and framing him for murder so that he needs to leave Paris quickly. Fortunately, he’s got friends in the academic community who tell him about Napoleon’s expedition to “liberate” Egypt from its Ottoman overlords. Napoleon’s also very interested in learning Egypt’s secrets and is taking all sorts of savants with him to research the country. Thanks to Gage’s knowledge of electricity (and his medallion), Napoleon invites him along too.

Dietrich has unbelievable skill when it comes to weaving historical information into an adventure story. Gage is present at (and occasionally instrumental in) the various victories and defeats that Napoleon experienced on the way to and in Egypt. Telling those stories could’ve been very dull, but they never are. Dietrich gives the major players as much personality as he gives to his fictional characters and made me care about them. I never thought I’d root for Napoleon’s side in any battle, but I empathized with his men and hoped to see them survive the campaign. As a lifelong Anglophile, I was surprised to find myself cringing at the thought of Nelson’s fleet discovering Napoleon’s. I was equally shocked to be filled with pride at how well the French’s military tactics and formations worked against their less-disciplined opponents. I’m a root-for-the-underdog guy; I don’t cheer for the imperialistic invaders. It’s a testament to Dietrich’s writing that he turned me.

At least as long as Gage was working with Napoleon anyway. I won’t spoil details, but of course things get complicated. In addition to the story elements I’ve already mentioned, there are also gypsies, British spies, a beautiful slave girl who is much more than she seems, fierce desert raiders – both good and evil – who are not to be crossed, and a wise, old scholar with a secret library. And yes, there’s a purpose to the pyramids.

The pyramids – particularly the Great One – are another place where Dietrich flawlessly marries his research to his story. I hate books that halt the narrative to dump a bunch of research on me simply because the author spent time looking it up and wants to make sure it was worthwhile. Dietrich never does that, but I still learned all the real-world marvels of the Great Pyramid before he revealed his fictional ones. The fictional ones are of course much cooler – as they should be (whoever said, “Truth is stranger than fiction” didn’t have enough imagination) – but the mathematical mysteries in the real Pyramid are truly fascinating the way Dietrich’s characters explain them.

But back to the fiction: I have a litmus test for stories that offer fictional solutions for real-life mysteries. Usually, I finish the story wanting to come up with my own explanation. Very rarely does an author do so good a job that I want to incorporate his answer into my own world-view. With Napoleon’s Pyramids, I have no desire to write my own version. I can’t believe that his solution is actually the correct one in real life, but he’s not asking me to. In Ethan Gage’s world, the revelation makes sense and I’d be intimidated by the challenge of coming up with a more exciting one, even if it was only for me.

The best praise I can offer the book though is that as soon as I finished it, I hopped on Amazon and ordered the rest of the series. They got here on Saturday and if the book I started right after Napoleon’s Pyramids wasn’t also excellent, I’d have started into The Rosetta Key already.

Five out of five sinister lantern-bearers.


Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

This looks really good. I am going to order it right now. Thanks for the recommend.

Michael May said...

Cool! I'm looking forward to reading what you think.

Rich said...

Wow, that was a very passionate book review. That alone tempts me to give it serious attention. I have really enjoyed other historical fiction I've read, and my interest was really caught when you mentioned the interweaving of Napoleon's historical campaign. I hope it really is as good as you report. You're right: it's always hard to beleive. Experience has soured us, I'm afraid. I'm curious: have you read The Scarlett Pimpernel? James Michner? W. Somerset Maugham?

Michael May said...

I've never read Scarlet Pimpernel, but I love the Leslie Howard movie version. Does that count?

I've also not read Michner or Maugham. In fact, I'm not familiar with Maugham at all. I'm really not that well-read.

I don't know how I arrived at this perception, but Michner always sounded dry to me. Maybe that's not fair. I like historical fiction, but I need it spiced way up. Otherwise, if I'm interested in a particular period of history, I'll just do my own research.

If Dietrich had been pitched to me as historical fiction first, I probably wouldn't have tried him out. It was the pyramid-mystery angle that got to me.


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