Sunday, March 18, 2007

Book Review: Napoleon's Pyramids

Author: William Dietrich
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0-06-084832-3

For Ethan Gage, an American adventurer living in Paris, winning a gold medallion in a card game was not a turn of good luck. There are people who will go to great lengths, including murder, to wrest the medallion from him. Accused of a murder he did not commit, and needing to escape France as quickly as possible, Gage joins Napoleon’s campaign to conquer Egypt and gain French control of the trade routes to India. Napoleon, aware of Gage’s medallion and hoping to harness its power for his own purposes, accepts Gage into his entourage and strikes up a friendship with him.

Napoleon, his army and an assortment of scholars and scientists, including Gage, set sail in May 1798. The ease with which they conquer Malta seems to portend good fortune for their mission. Upon arriving in Alexandria in July, however, they face resistance from the Muslim army that controls Egypt and much of the Middle East. The French, with superior technology, defeat the Muslim army at Alexandria and occupy the city, and Gage acquires a slave whose master was killed in the battle.

Napoleon’s army continues its march to Cairo and wins a bloody victory at the Battle of the Pyramids. Upon arriving in Cairo, Napoleon strives futilely to win the trust and goodwill of the Egyptians, and Gage contacts an Egyptian scholar for help in revealing the mystery of his medallion. He also falls in love with Astiza, his slave who, it turns out, is not a slave at all; she is, in fact, a devotee of the ancient Egyptian culture and religion. She has substantial knowledge about Egyptian and Muslim ways and she guides Gage as he discovers more about his own character and beliefs. As Napoleon’s struggles to secure his conquest increase, his friendship with Gage becomes strained. Gage, in turn, is alarmed by Napoleon’s increasingly apparent megalomania.

Eventually, the French naval force moored on the outskirts of Alexandria is demolished by the British navy in an epic sea battle (the Battle of the Nile), a defeat that squelches Napoleon’s dreams of controlling the Mediterranean trade routes. Gage, having uncovered the mystery of the medallion, does not want to reveal his findings to the tyrannical Napoleon. As Gage and Astiza flee from Napoleon and his army, they become separated. Gage continues his escape and eventually contacts the British navy. The book closes with the promise of a new adventure for Gage, in the company of the British this time around, that will include a search for his lost love.

Napoleon’s Pyramids is based on Napoleon’s actual escapades in Egypt. Many of the book’s characters were real people and many of the book’s military and political details are accurate. The book is lush with minutiae about the architecture and mathematical mysteries of the pyramids and the rich history and culture of Egypt. The storyline is engrossing yet not convoluted and the characters are complex yet credible. Dietrich’s careful attention to details of plotting, character and pace is evident throughout the book. The result is a finely crafted historical adventure tale that will keep readers turning pages through the night.

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