Thursday, April 10, 2008

Napoleon's Pyramids and The Rosetta Key by William Dietrich - review

Napoleon's Pyramids

In 1798 Ethan Gage an early thirties American, adventurer, gambler, mason and former employee and protegee of Ben Franklin is living by his wits and luck at the card table in the decadent Paris of the Directorate age, just after the end of the Terror and before the age of Napoleon when uncertainty and corruption ruled the day.

One day his luck turns though unclear if for good or bad, when he wins a strange Egyptian medallion at a card game; immediately a mysterious Count Silano offers him a nice price to buy it, but Gage does not like the count so he refuses, and then he is attacked in the street, framed for murder and thrown in jail.

However he receives an offer of pardon if he would join a mysterious expedition the current darling of the French people, one Corsican general Bonaparte is leading to a mysterious destination at both his and the Directorate rulers behest - for glory, plunder and to get rid France of a popular general who could be dangerous. Bonaparte is taking lots of scientists, mathematicians, journalists, artists with him, and the destination is of course Egypt.

Ethan joins the gang with his friend, the journalist Talma, and strange things start to happen again even on the way to Toulon where they would embark - he meets with the famous English spy and adventurer Sidney Smith recently escaped from a French prison.

Ethan participates at some of the most memorable events of the campaign, the capture of Malta, the 2 battles of Abukir, the battle of Cairo, he gets in, out, in, out...of Bonaparte's favor, he meets Nelson, he visits the Pyramids, finds a beautiful mysterious woman, and treacherous enemies, makes and loses friends...

In other words an usual historical thriller, but it's funny, the characters grow on you and I always love first person writing. The battles are very well described and there are lots of mysteries. The ending is very good though an almost literal cliffhanger.

There are also some brilliant cameos, especially by the famous "black" general Dumas, the son of a French aristocrat and a black slave who was a leading general of the revolution before being eclipsed by Napoleon and then he was the commander of the French cavalry in Egypt before parting ways with Bonaparte and dying in obscurity several years later. Of course his main claim to fame is that after he returned from Egypt he became the father of Alexandre Dumas.

In a clear homage to Dumas, the author has the main villain Count Silano having a Cagliostro moment scene with the general Dumas, when after challenging the general to a strange duel involving eating a pig - called Cagliostro's duel- and the general declining and storming from the room after Bonaparte forbids a more classic duel with guns or swords, the Count Silano exclaims: "he was wise to refuse, this way he will get back to France and have a son who will become very famous"

I have not have this much fun reading a historical thriller since The Eight by Katherine Neville and I am looking forward to the sequel.

Highly, highly recommended

The Rosetta Key, sequel to Napoleon's Pyramids - some spoilers for the first one here so beware

The Rosetta Key takes off pretty much where the first book leaves - though it starts dramatically with Ethan Gage awaiting execution as a spy, with the roughly 4000 ottoman soldiers captured by Napoleon at Jaffa and executed in masse in one of those rare Napoleonic moments of outright cruelty though done with some political purpose in mind - in this case to frighten the Ottoman soldiers and rulers of Syria to surrender to Napoleon who with about 15k soldiers wanted to emulate Alexander and conquer all the way to India - of course it does not work, but that's only because the Syrians have a ruler they fear more than Napoleon - Djezzar The Butcher

Ethan recounts the story of how he got there starting from his journey on the British ship he landed on at the end of the first book where he cleans the sailors at cards - which leads directly to his current fate- , to Jerusalem where he meets another interesting girl - his current lover Astisza is still missing...

Then after Gage escapes the mass execution, the story moves forward to the siege of Acre, where Djezzar helped by the British and some French noblemen fights Napoleon, and then to various places in the Holy Land, then Egypt, and it ends on a quite satisfying note in Paris. Everything is wrapped up, but the possibility of further adventures is left open and if the book continues to perform in the market as the first one did, I am pretty sure a new chapter in Ethan's adventures will come up.

In many ways this is a better book, more polished than the first one, the main historical characters are still memorable - when Napoleon arrives before Acre, Djezzar a very feared 75 years old climbs the wall and yells at the French - "I killed more men and f.. more women than Napoleon and I will f.. him too", the one liners are very funny:

villain - "Gage don't they teach you classics on the frontier?'"
Gage - "On the frontier classics make excellent fire-starters"

It's pulpy, funny, lots of battles and hair-raising escapes and fascinating characters both real and imagined.

The only weak moments that started to irritate me after a while are the repetition of Napoleon ordering Ethan execution, Ethan escapes but then he comes back to Napoleon for a reason or another and it repeats a bit too many times.

Highly recommended fun book, and if new Ethan Gage adventures get published I will read them for sure.

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