Napoleon’s Pyramids — a weird title for an action-adventure. But so is Raiders of the Lost Ark, isn’t it? Anyhow, author William Dietrich is not shy about his main source of inspiration for his swashbuckling protagonist Ethan Gage. This book contains Indy-style scenes from chapter one to its end and both Napoleon and Cheops‘s Great Pyramid play starring roles.
The plot is straight-forward: Ethan Gage, an American sharpshooter and disciple of Benjamin Franklin, enjoys a rowdy life in Paris during the 1790s. He wins a mysterious medallion at a gambling table and immediately gets entangled in dangerous plots with Biblical connotations. He is chased by the French police and has to flee to the Mediterranean coast, where he gets recruited as a civilian adviser in Napoleon’s army sailing for Egypt. I will not proceed further into the plot, because that would entail spoilers.
The story is told in first person and thereby gives the impression of being Gage’s boastful and not fully reliable retelling of youthful adventures in exotic lands. For example, Gage’s account for his amazing ability as a sniper does not hold water considering the quality of 18th-century rifled muskets.
William Dietrich knows the era, though I spotted a few errors (e.g. in period terminology), and delivers occasional info dumps on Paris, shipboard life, naval battles, and the French conquest of the Nile valley. It often gets too much of a good thing — tighter editing, please. The story’s few supernatural events are connected to the era’s preoccupation with Egyptian mysteries and Freemasonry. Orientalist tropes appear in almost every chapter: gypsies, harem ladies, labyrinthine cities, sneaky adversaries, deserts, etc. However, after a while Dietrich carries everything too far and starts to utilize clichéd twists that I spot well in advance.
Since my youth I have had an interest in the turmoils of the 1790s, when the French revolution transformed Europe. The main reason I bought this book was because it was a period adventure outside the usual British-centered perspective (i.e. Hornblower, Aubrey, Bolitho, Sharpe, Scarlet Pimpernel, Laurence). However, despite Dietrich’s hard work in the reference library, the story does not deliver sufficient punch. Its last third was simply too predictable. So I will not buy the sequel. A pity, because I like the author’s basic idea.
Ergo, my verdict: three pyramids out of five.