Of Swords and Plumes 005: William Dietrich’s “Ethan Gage Adventures”

Napoleon’s Pyramids and The Rosetta Key, by William Dietrich. HarperCollins, 2007 and 2008; reviewed in the Kindle editions.

Well, this is embarrassing: I call myself a swashbuckler aficionado, and yet till now I’ve somehow managed to overlook a successful new historical action series, the “Ethan Gage Adventures,” by American author William Dietrich. I just read the first two books, and liked them. Here’s why:

The series is set in the Napoleonic era, and is clearly modeled, at least in part, on George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” novels. Like Flashman, the hero is a self-described amoral rogue who gets drawn into every major fracas of his time. But Dietrich’s books are no mere homage to Fraser, as they have their own distinctive tone; Dietrich is pulpier than Fraser, and has fewer qualms about embroidering on history in the pursuit of outlandish action scenes or occult overtones.

Dietrich’s hero, Ethan Gage, is an American frontiersman, a gambler and opportunist who finds himself in Europe after attaching himself to Ben Franklin during his term as Ambassador to France. After Franklin’s return to the States Gage hangs on in Paris, playing the “Franklin’s man” card in the salons of the Revolutionary elite, charming the ladies with his tales of the American savages and doing parlor tricks with that new scientific toy, electricity.

In classic pulp fashion, Gage wins a mysterious Egyptian amulet in a game of cards, refuses to sell it to an ominous foreigner, and is soon being pursued through the Parisian night by mysterious robed figures led by a man with a snake-headed staff. That pretty much roped me in right there: equip your villain with a snake-headed staff, and I’m sold.

In short order Gage is framed for murder, accosted by highwaymen, throws in with a band of Gypsies, and then finds himself bound for Egypt aboard Napoleon’s invasion fleet, a member of Bonaparte’s team of pet savants brought along to plumb the mysteries of the orient. Like Fraser, Dietrich drops the name of every historical luminary who crosses his hero’s path, though Dietrich eschews footnotes, preferring to put (far too much of) his research onto the page. This is kind of a rookie mistake, but by the second book he seems to have seen the error of his ways, and slacks off on cramming in details that aren’t plot-relevant.

The name of the first novel is “Napoleon’s Pyramids,” so our natural expectation is that Gage is going to get involved in both the Battle of the Pyramids and the naval Battle of the Nile, and Dietrich doesn’t disappoint. Unlike most swashbuckling heroes Ethan Gage is no swordsman, but as a frontiersman he has significant combat chops with the Pennsylvania longrifle and the Indian tomahawk. This is meant to be a refreshing change, and it works, thought when it comes to a pitched battle Gage, like Flashman, prefers to be included out. No such luck, of course: for the Battle of the Nile, Dietrich even puts him smack aboard the French flagship “l’Orient,” which if you know anything about that battle will have you sweating for his survival.

After a series of hair-raising escapes we get back to the business of that mysterious amulet, which inevitably is one of several keys to the lost and secret powers of the ancient Egyptians, clues to which they encoded into their inscriptions and monuments. On to the pyramids!

Hermes Trismegistus, the Book of Thoth, the Egyptian Rite of the Freemasons, and reams of numerology are all duly invoked – mainly by Astiza, the dark-eyed, cryptic beauty who first tries to assassinate Gage, and then becomes his lover. (Of course.)

A few words about Astiza, Gage’s Egyptian femme fatale: she’s no mere exotic princess who’s constantly in need of being resuced. She’s smarter than Gage, better educated, both wily and wise, and she actively pursues her own agenda, which is not always aligned with Gage’s. This adds a welcome element of unpredictability into the story.

Once love rears its head, it becomes clear Dietrich has a different fate in mind for his series hero than Fraser did for Flashman, for Ethan Gage, though an admittedly callow rogue, feels kind of bad about it, and wishes, deep down, that he was a better man. And in fact, he is clearly doomed to be Redeemed by Romance – but not too quickly, as there’s way too much to do first: burgling Cheops’ pyramid, escaping Mameluke assassins, fighting off voracious Nile crocodiles, and going for a jaunt in one of the savant Conte’s early hydrogen balloons. Chasing the mysteries of the ancients is not for those of sedentary disposition.

Besides, there’s not much opportunity for romantic redemption when Gage is continually being separated from and reunited with Astiza in the fashion perfected by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In a further crib from ERB, the novel even ends with a cliffhanger, though not before one of the menacing and sinister villains meets with a satisfyingly lurid end.

The second novel is more of the same pulpy goodness, though as mentioned above the writing gets even tighter. Gage is whisked off to Syria to participate in the Jaffa Massacre and the Siege of Acre, discover the lost city of Petra a dozen years early, then return to Egypt to mess about with the Rosetta Stone. There are breaks for intervals of love and lust, and Gage takes a few more baby steps toward moral reform. Eventually the Big Maguffin is won away from the vile antagonists, and the groundwork is laid for book three.

As they say, you’ll like this stuff, if this is the kind of stuff you like: fun, light reading, with engaging characters (no pun intended – oh, all right, it was intended), fascinating nuggets of history, and snappy dialogue, all moving along at a rapid pace. And with the recent publication of “The Three Emperors,” the series is now up to seven entries. I intend to read them all.

“Napoleon’s Pyramids” and “The Rosetta Key” are available from Amazon in paperback, Kindle ebook, and unabridged Audible download formats.