Review: Napoleon’s Pyramids

Napoleon’s Pyramids by William Dietrich

When I was a kid, I adored Ancient Egypt and read everything I could find on the mythology and the culture. A book that combined my love for Ancient Egypt with my natural love for Napoleonic France (every single slight about French martial ability fades with Napoleon in the picture) was just begging for me to read it. Even before I finished it, I knew someone was getting this for Christmas.

Napoleon’s Pyramids follows American adventurer Ethan Gage as he ends up in one of the weirdest situations of his life–having escaped Paris after winning an ancient medallion that death follows like an errant puppy, Gage finds asylum joining Napoleon’s expedition into Egypt. But Egypt proves to be no escape from the renegade Freemasons and French revolutionaries who want to know the secret behind Gage’s medallion… but Gage is determined to beat them to the punch.

The novel is written as though Gage is a old man reflecting on his young adventures, occasionally mentioning the ultimate fate of some throwaway historical figures and possessing the benefit of hindsight. The first chapter is a little rough, mostly because Dietrich is as excited as a little boy on Christmas to tell us all about Gage’s wonderful (and actually believable!) backstory. He chooses to do so in the middle of a chase through Paris, however, and the moment is only saved by the very clever transition between Gage escaping his first love and Gage escaping the authorities. Still, it’s hardly prevalent–after that first chapter, everything was smooth sailing.

As a character, Gage is a mix between Robert Langdon and Indiana Jones, with a dash of Ron Burgundy. (His increasingly zany proclamations made me giggle a little until “BY THE TIMBERS OF TICONDEROGA!” made me laugh out loud.) Gage is a likable protagonist–good-hearted, but still a bit of a cad, and the world’s worst Freemason. He’s been mostly floating by on his association with Ben Franklin, his Freemason connections, and gambling, but he’s not a bad guy. I was pleased to see his positive but still period-appropriate attitude towards women, especially his winking and roundabout way of mentioning the more intimate details of his love life. However, the apparent conceit that an older and wiser Gage is writing this can weigh the younger Gage down, occasionally reigning in the wild adventure with hindsight. There’s even a passage where the older Gage solemnly contemplates the future of modern warfare. Fortunately, these are fairly few and far between, but it still seems odd to see this novel pretending it’s anything more than it is–a fun adventure.

Even better is Astiza, the Greco-Egyptian woman who takes Gage under her wing and turns out to be a priestess of Isis. She is, of course, gorgeous, and I’m not exactly sure why she had to be Greek instead of completely Egyptian. She’s smart, determined, and most of the reason why Gage succeeds in discovering the purpose of the medallion. (He wouldn’t have survived the novel’s climax without her!) I wasn’t expecting to see such a well-executed character in a wild adventure, so I was quite pleased. The rest of the Egyptian supporting cast is just as deftly done. Gage has a lucky advantage with the European supporting cast in that he uses mostly historical figures to round them out, so we’re treated to Alexander Dumas bickering with the villain and actual mathematicians making progress in Gage’s quest. And yes, Napoleon turns in several appearances. The villains, who I won’t reveal here, are suitably villainous and, as Gage laments, very hard to kill.

One of the best things about Napoleon’s Pyramids is the fact that it doesn’t romanticize European involvement in Egypt at all. Astiza makes it very clear that she is not happy about it, and, while Gage is gaga about her, only returns his affections when he discovers a true purpose beyond “rescuing” her homeland. This respect for Egypt is quite refreshing, especially compared against a villain who exoticizes and exploits Egyptian mythology for their own gain. At one point, Gage finds himself in a harem, and sheepishly discovers it’s simply the women’s wing instead of the fantasy he had. This, along with Astiza, helps make Napoleon’s Pyramids a particularly sparkling adventure. The historical research is very well done, especially when it comes to the real battles Gage finds himself in. Dietrich thoughtfully added a Historical Note at the end to explain what was real and what wasn’t, and I was surprised to see how faithful he was to the historical record.

The pacing is heartily quick, with plenty of narrow escapes and sudden realizations ending chapters, like any self-respecting thriller. I particularly enjoyed a passage where Gage and Ashraf, one of his Egyptian companions, must cross some particularly inhospitable desert to escape the villain–the solution is just so good. The climax of the story is especially thrilling and extremely cinematic, including a puzzle that pays loving homage to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Napoleon’s Pyramids is also honestly funny. I’ve mentioned Gage’s endearingly zany proclamations, but there’s also the dry wit of the French and Gage’s internal monologue. At one point, Gage fondly recounts some time spent with the Roma and his friend scoffingly wonders why he bothered to come back.

The ending, however, sets up too neatly for a sequel. While it is better than a lot of first books in series, since it has such a fantastical climax, it’s not totally self-contained. It’s a novel very secure in the knowledge that it would be getting a sequel. I will probably read The Rosetta Key, because this was so much fun, but I would have preferred a little more closure and a little less transitioning into the next book.

Bottom line: An Indiana Jones-esque and fairly respectful romp through late 1700s Egypt, Napoleon’s Pyramids occasionally pretends it’s not a romp, but when it’s going full throttle, it’s so much fun.

I rented this book from the public library.

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