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4 trowels

NAPOLEON'S PYRAMIDS

By: William Dietrich
HarperCollins: New York
2007 (hc)

Recently a dear friend, Jill Pintz, marked my 60th birthday by giving me a copy of William Dietrich’s Napoleon’s Pyramids -- an exciting, swashbuckling,  rollicking adventure story of the kind we rarely see in contemporary literature.  In style and to a certain extent in language it hearkens back to such works as Fielding’s Tom Jones and Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped.  The reader is introduced to the novel’s hero, a young footloose American who is obviously enjoying the wilder side of life in late 18th Century Paris.  He had been an aide to Benjamin Franklin during his days as the ambassador to France during the very early days of the young Republic.  While certainly no intellectual, the youthful Gage, because of his association with Franklin, something of a Frontier polymath in the eyes of many Parisians, was able to fit into the society of philosophers, scientists, and charlatans alike. Like his famous mentor, Ethan coupled an inquisitive if undisciplined intellect with the earthy pragmatism of the New World frontiersman.  He appeared to be equally at home in the company of gamblers, prostitutes, criminals and a wide assortment of Parisian scoundrels, much to his later chagrin. 

His true adventure began with his winning a mysterious medallion in a game of chance—a medallion etched with mysterious and undecipherable markings that attracted the interests of both some of his Freemason comrades --Franklin had introduced him to the mysteries of Freemasonry, although he found its arcane rituals and legends fairly infantile-- as well as an array of sinister characters who seemed willing to kill him to obtain the medallion, including a splinter group of Masons called the Egyptian Rite that reveled in the occult practices of Nile River ancients.  Nearly a victim of foul play himself, Ethan quickly finds himself the prime suspect in the brutal murder of a prostitute and the subject of a manhunt by Paris law enforcement, an institution not far removed in behavior from the criminals they pursued.  All of his misadventures seem to point back to his medallion, and he determines that he must unlock its secret if it is of such great interest to so many people!    

Because his Freemason friends believe it to be an artifact of ancient Egypt (from whence Freemasonry traces its roots), and because killers and the French authorities are hot on his heels, Ethan is convinced to join, along with his Freemason friends, Napoleon Bonaparte’s armada, which is about to sail from Toulon to conquer Mameluke-ruled Egypt.  Accosted by highwaymen (who seem to be some of the very same thugs he faced in Paris) on the road to Toulon, he is aided by a band of Gypsies, and finally disembarks with the 34,000 soldiers, sailors, support crew that make up Napoleon’s forces.  But Ethan is numbered among the savants, the scientists, mathematicians, and naturalists that the future emperor brought with him to study the ancient civilization that was Egypt—and Ethan hopes he can solve the mystery and decipher that etchings on his medallion. 

Ethan is with Bonaparte on July 1, 1798, as the French fleet attacks and storms first Alexandria and then moves on to occupy Cairo.  As a result of his participating in combat, Ethan wins “ownership” of a beautiful Greco-Egyptian woman, Astiza, who, he quickly learns, possesses arcane knowledge of ancient Egyptian customs, religious beliefs, and scientific insights—she may, in fact, be a priestess of some ancient cult, or even a sorceress—and she hints at knowledge pertaining to his medallion!  Looming over Ethan and his savant comrades, as well as Astiza, are the pyramids of Giza—ancient already in the time of Christ— that hint at cosmic secrets that may unlock the workings of the universe.  And Ethan’s medallion appears to be connected, perhaps as some sort of key, to unlocking those secrets.  

From historic battles of the Napoleonic assault on Egypt (sometimes described in painfully long detail), to almost slapstick episodes in Egyptian prisons and late-night harem raids, to an edge-of-the-seat life and death chase through tunnels deep within the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the reader is treated to a wonderful tale of adventure that culminates, not in the discovery of the ancient secrets of Egyptian civilization, but something even better—the promise of a sequel novel and the continuing adventures of Ethan Gage! 

This novel is one of high adventure at its best—four trowels for Napoleon’s Pyramids and the hope that the wait won’t be too long for the sequel!

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.