Book Reviews

Review Rating

With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

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The Alexander Cipher by Will Adams

Reviewed on: September 1, 2009


HarperCollins:  London
2007 (pb)

Will Adams has written an entertaining, if perhaps not profound thriller in his debut novel, The Alexander Cipher.  Perhaps the strongest element is the introduction of his protagonist, Daniel Knox.  He is an archaeologist, who as the novel opens, has come upon hard times and has perhaps been almost literally drummed out of the profession or at the very least has become something of a pariah.  To pay the bills he works for an unsavory shipping magnate, Hassan al-Assyuti, as a diver instructor—an occupation that allows him to continue dabbling in underwater archaeology in the area off the Sinai Peninsula.  Knox earns the murderous wrath of Hassan by humiliating the industrialist and quickly finds himself on the run in an attempt to evade Hassan’s hired thugs.  He flees to Alexandria, Egypt, where he hopes to hide out with his old friend and fellow archaeologist, Augustin Pascal.

Meanwhile in Alexandria, a construction foreman, Mohammed el-Dahab, discovers what is believed by Ibrahim Beyumi, director of the Supreme Council for Antiquities in Alexandria, to be a Macedonian necropolis hidden beneath the site of a new hotel construction.   Because funding for archaeological excavation in the Nile delta fared poorly when competing with the more famous ancient sites of the of the Upper Nile, Beyumi found himself looking to the Dragoumis family, industrialists whose enthusiasm for all things Macedonian, including Macedonian separatist politics, for financial support.  Philip Dragoumis and his firebrand son Nicolas agree to fund the excavation, but only if Beyumi agrees to hire on Elena Kolotronis, an accomplished albeit terribly bitter archaeologist, to run the dig.  Elena agrees to leave her project but insists upon bringing a young understudy, papyrologist Gaille Bonnard, as an assistant, as well as Knox’s friend, Augustin Pascal.  With Hassan’s hired killers hot on his trail, Knox suddenly finds himself virtually encircled by even more enemies, including the Dragoumis father and son combination who Knox had slandered some ten years earlier and Gaille Bonnard, who blames Knox for the death of her estranged father on a dig in the Western Desert.  Knox, coincidentally, has issues with Elena Kolotronis, whose husband was responsible for the deaths of Knox’s parents and younger sister in an automobile crash.  This confluence of passions and emotions cannot bode well for our hero, Daniel Knox!

Knox is drawn to the archaeological site under cover of darkness and his interests and expertise in the history of Alexander the Great leads him to the realization that the tomb, ostensibly the final resting place of Akylos, the elite shield-bearer of Alexander, has buried with it secrets that may disclose the burial site of Alexander himself.  A clever cipher left by the tomb-builders is broken by Gaille Bonnard, even as Knox finds himself falling in love with her.

The final denouement is exciting, imaginative and just a bit goofy, but in its totality this is a very entertaining adventure-thriller.  Adams works in a good bit of Macedonian and Alexandrine history while at the same time maintaining a break-neck pace of action—but never without real purpose.  But perhaps his most notable achievement is in the creation of the protagonist, Daniel Knox, who can be dashing, brave and honorable but can also display weakness of character and a ready eye for the main chance.

This novel was originally published in Great Britain in 2007 but was just recently published in the United States in hardcover by Grand Central Publishing.  This is not great literature but it is a delightful summer read.  Three trowels for The Alexander Cipher.

Twenty Years in the Trenches: Archaeology in Fiction

William Gresens, longtime MVAC supporter and volunteer, has been writing reviews of archaeological fiction as MVAC’s book reviewer for twenty years.  In this interview Bill shares how he got started writing reviews for MVAC, how the genre has changed, highlights, and his thoughts looking forward. 

Bill Gresen’s Book Review 20th Anniversary

While Bill's reviews go back 20 years now, his relationship with MVAC goes back more than twice that long! The reviews capture some of the things we enjoy most about Bill-- he's perceptive, methodical, a clear thinker, and a whole lot of fun! We look forward to this relationship--and Bill's reviews!--continuing for many years to come.

The March 2021 review marks the 20th anniversary of reviews of archaeological fiction.  It has been my pleasure and great fun to while away the hours reading these books—for the most part, at least—and writing the reviews!  My thanks to MVAC allowing me to prattle on and I look forward to the years ahead.

Bill Gresens