book: Napoleon’s Pyramids (2007) by William Dietrich


Ethan Gage, a rapscallion American ex-mentee of Benjamin Franklin now resident in immediate post-Terror Paris, wins an unusual medallion in a card game and soon after finds himself hotly pursued by rogues for the medallion and by the authorities for the murder (which he did not commit) of a prostitute. A journalist friend secures him a position as one of the savants attached to Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt — surely Ethan’s foes would not follow him as far as that ancient land?

Oh, yes, they would.

After a raft of adventures and narrow escapes — the usual — Ethan joins Napoleon’s crew, and in due course, with the help of a wildly independent Macedonian with whom he falls in love and a Mameluke warrior who becomes his great friend, is able to ascribe meaning to the medallion and unlock the mystery of the pyramids . . .

The plot is one of those that a writer like Arturo Pérez-Reverte or Carlos Ruiz Zafon could have had a ball with — and I might have had a ball reading their rendition of it — but I have to confess I found Napoleon’s Pyramids rather heavy-going. That was until the final fifty or sixty pages, when the author seemed to remember the existence of screen rights and the success of the Indiana Jones movies. This later section is far more readable, yet I found it difficult to accept as anything beyond pseudohistorical/pseudotheological twaddle . . . and not in a good way.

For a Pulitzer-winning journalist, Dietrich seems to have a somewhat cavalier approach to basic research. For example:

(a) We’re told numerous times that our planet’s pole star some thousands of years ago was Draco, in the constellation Draconis; in fact it was Thuban, which lies in the constellation Draco (there’s no star called Draco) and is formally known as Alpha (or α) Draconis (“Draconis” is the possessive of “Draco”).

(b) Several times (and perhaps throughout; I wasn’t reading all that carefully) the well known pharaonic dynasty is rendered as “the Ptolomies.”

(c) And then there’s Pascal’s Triangle. Anyone with even a smattering of schoolday math — okay, perhaps a heavyish smattering — is likely to recognize on sight one of the groups of markings on Ethan’s medallion as a representation of Pascal’s Triangle. Not so for our assembled savants, some of the finest French scientists of the day (even after the ranks had been thinned a bit by Madame Guillotine, French science was in pretty good shape): for them those markings are inscrutable and arcane. Come back, Dan Brown: all is forgiven.

I also found it irritating that the text couldn’t decide if it was working in metric or US Customary units. At one stage our characters are inside the Great Pyramid and it seems that, just about every time they turn a corner, they stop thinking in meters and start thinking in feet, or vice versa.

Dietrich’s portrayal of Napoleon is pretty unflattering — although it may, for all that, be perfectly accurate; I’m no expert. My own image of the little corporal is derived from my reading, many years ago, of Vincent Cronin’s massive biography Napoleon (1971) and, soon after, a biography of his years in exile whose details I now can’t remember. The Napoleon whom Dietrich gives us here is a far less impressive individual — pettily ruthless, often anti-intellectual even though full of curiosity and his own intellectual pretensions, given to transient lusts. I found this “different Napoleon” quite refreshing.

There are now, I think, eight novels in Dietrich’s Ethan Gage series, so these books obviously have plenty of fans. But, to judge on the basis of this one, they’re not for me.


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