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Napoleon's Pyramids    by William Dietrich order for
Napoleon's Pyramids
by William Dietrich
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2007 (2007)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist William Dietrich has written quite a variety of fiction and non-fiction - from natural history essays to exciting ice-bound thrillers and engrossing historical novels. Now, in Napoleon's Pyramids, he brings us something a little different again, a delicious romp of non-stop (often improbable) action and adventure set in a thoroughly fascinating historical niche, when Napoleon Bonaparte took his armies - and an eclectic bunch of savants (scientists and mystics) - to Egypt in search of treasure and ancient secrets.

We first meet colorful American adventurer Ethan Gage adrift in Paris after early escapades in the North American fur trade that left him armed (and proficient) with longrifle and tomahawk. Ethan also was secretary for some time to Benjamin Franklin, who taught him about electricity and inducted him into the Masonic Order. The adventure begins, fittingly for Ethan on a Friday the thirteenth, in the spring of 1798. That evening, he wins at cards an Egyptian medallion, whose current owner claims it was once worn by Cleopatra and previously belonged to famed alchemist Count Cagliostro. Despite the fact that the talisman is apparently cursed, French-Italian Count Alessandro Silano (who has a reputation for the black arts) wants it badly. After Ethan refuses to sell, his life quickly takes a turn for the worse.

He's beaten and his rooms are searched. Then a prostitute is murdered, and the American sought as the killer. With help from his Masonic brothers, Ethan flees Paris, followed by relentless pursuers. Fortunately, he has help too - from his journalist friend, traveling gypsies - whose Tarot reading tells him 'You are the fool, and you must find the fool, becoming wise to find wisdom' - and British agent Sir Sidney Smith. Events conspire to leave Ethan only one option to avoid the guillotine - he joins General Napoleon Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt, as one of 167 civilian professionals - from mathematicians and engineers to astronomers and antiquarians, and including a one-eyed balloonist. Amongst other objectives, they intend to unlock the secrets of the Great Pyramid.

Ethan almost drowns, fights in battle, encounters an enemy - Achmed bin Sadr, follower of the serpent god and allied with Count Silano - and wins lovely half-Macedonian slave Astiza, who has hidden depths and surprising talents. During the battle, a Mameluke warrior, Ashraf el-Din, surrenders to Ethan and becomes a key ally in his quest to find the medallion's purpose. The American steadily - and with regular close shaves in the midst of war - assembles clues. When his friends are attacked and he himself is vilified to Napoleon, Ethan ends up on the run into the desert, 'prey for every Bedouin, Mameluke, and French cavalryman in Egypt.' Eventually pursued through the Great Pyramid itself, and separated from Astiza, whom he has grown to love, Ethan finds a purpose in life, and discovers that his quest has just begun.

Napoleon's Pyramids has it all - authentic historical detail in an era on the cusp of ancient mysticism and modern science; old, dangerous secrets; non-stop, thrilling, Indiana Jones style adventure; a colorful young hero whose character remains to be formed; and his developing romance with a mysterious priestess of ambiguous loyalties. Fortunately, it looks like Ethan Gage's adventure will continue - in a sequel in Jerusalem. Don't miss this engaging historical thriller, but be warned, it's a tough one to put down.

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