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Napoleon's Pyramids

by William Dietrich

      In 1798, the great Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt with the hope of expanding the French empire and pushing the English from the Middle East and India. Many historians have viewed this invasion as a significant turning point for the French and Egyptian cultures. The new science of Egyptology was born and the famous Rosetta Stone was discovered. The West was introduced to the mysteries and mystique of ancient Egypt, and with that came an ideal setting for tales and legends. The latest of which can be found in William Dietrich's novel.

Ethan Gage is an American somewhat known in France as one of Ben Franklin's understudies. Gage is familiar with Franklin's work on electricity and his involvement with the secretive Freemasons. His knowledge of ancient cultures, or lack thereof, is matched by his feeling of detachment among the French, a land far from the frontiers of America where Gage acquired great skill as a marksman and ever better skill at gambling. It was during a friendly card game that he came to possess an odd, fairly plain-looking medallion. Judging by its appearance, the medallion hardly looked valuable in any way, but certain events around him quickly suggested otherwise. His casual lover is murdered and it's clear that Gage has been framed for the crime. He soon learns that his only options are to remain in Paris and face prosecution and certain conviction, or leave France as a savant guest of Napoleon in the great general's campaign against Egypt.

Gage's mysterious medallion soon draws Napoleon's attention and it isn't long before he is tasked to help the French unravel the enigma of the Egyptian culture and its wondrous pyramids. During the campaign, he stumbles into the ownership of a beautiful Macedonian slave-girl and befriends an Arab prisoner of war, both of whom become valuable sources of local knowledge and handy allies as he is stalked by dark forces seeking the medallion and the unknown power that it may possess. With their help, Gage learns that his homely medallion could be the key that unlocks the mystery of the Great Pyramids, and such knowledge in the wrong hands would be disastrous for the world. The sharp-shooting American playboy fugitive now has the fate of the world dangling around his neck.

Good fiction is hard to come by and good historical fiction even harder and unless you've tried, it's hard to imagine how difficult it is to write a solid story in the setting of an historic moment while also maintaining the accuracy of that moment. This is why I appreciate Dietrich's work beyond the fact that it's a great read. Napoleon's Egyptian campaign was monumental for several different cultures and Dietrich balanced things very well. The campaign acted as a perfect backdrop for the adventure story, and yet it did not consume the characters or the plotline. And his portrayal of Napoleon, as I picture the famous Corsican, was absolutely spot-on. Polite and sophisticated, yet short-fused; ambitious and demanding, a brilliant and arrogant military strategist. It's hard to maintain such a strong historical character in a supporting role, but Dietrich pulled it off masterfully. He managed to keep the main character as a focal point of the story despite Napoleon's ominous presence, and his development of Gage as a character was some of the best I've read. Ethan Gage basically transforms from 18th century frat boy to an Indiana Jones-like protector of the world, an evolution that is difficult to complete in just one novel and my suspicion of this was confirmed when I discovered that there is a sequel. But don't worry, Mr. Dietrich, I will be reading the next installment of Gage's adventure and I recommend anyone else who enjoys historical fiction do the same. High marks for Dietrich! He has raised the bar for his genre.

The Book

Harper Collins
December 2007
Mass Market Paperback
Historical thriller / Egypt and France / 1798-99
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The Reviewer

John Washburn
Reviewed 2008
NOTE: Reviewer John Washburn is the author of When Evil Prospers.
© 2008