I love the fact that Steve Berry loves history.
The New York Times best-selling novelist has written numerous thrillers, including “The Paris Vendetta” (evil financiers, Napoleon and terrorism) “The Charlemagne Pursuit” (Aryans, Nazis) and “The Templar Legacy” (the Knights Templar crusaders). All were heart-pounding, fact-based stories that were rooted in secret societies and myths and legends. Of course, there was some fiction blended in, which made the books even more entertaining and oddly, more thought-provoking.
After all, how much do we really know about history?
Berry explores this concept to the nth degree in his latest novel, “The Emperor’s Tomb,” which tackles the mysteries of China. There are a ton of them and, unfortunately, they overwhelm a convoluted story that struggles from the start.
The Florida author constructs his story around the history — and legends — of China’s ruling class, from when Qin Shi (labeled the “First Emperor”) united the country for the first time around 220 B.C. to
the successive dynasties and then to the current communist leaders.
Enter Cotton Malone. Berry’s popular protagonist returns, and he may be in over his head this time. Malone is a lawyer, military veteran and former Justice Department operative who has retired (even though he’s in his late 40s) and now operates a bookstore in Copenhagen, Denmark.
But, as in past stories, adventure and danger find Malone. This time, he receives an anonymous note, which leads him to a website. He’s then horrified to see Cassiopeia Vitt, a enigmatic Frenchwoman who has saved his life before, being waterboarded by a mysterious man. He wants a special artifact that he thinks Vitt has given to him. Problem is, Malone has no idea what the artifact is or where it’s at.
"Seeing her on the (computer) screen tore at his gut," Berry writes. "(Malone) suddenly realized that if anything happened to this woman his life would never be the same. He had to find her."
Vitt is soon saved and the duo reunited. But they’re now entangled in the pursuit of this artifact, which could lead to the rise of a new and (more?) dangerous group of leaders in China, which will have
severe global implications.
Malone and Vitt are forced to work with a duplicitous agent named Viktor, a rogue Russian scientist and a few high-ranking Chinese officials, who have their own agendas. Malone and Vitt’s travels eventually take them to western China, a restless region where the duo get into all sorts of high-stakes trouble.
Among some of the subjects that "The Emperor’s Tomb" explores: the debate between Confucianism and legalism, the secret brotherhood called the Ba, the long history of eunuchs in Chinese politics, the terra-cotta warrior museum, Qin Shi’s tomb and the debate between biotic and abiotic oil.
Perhaps because of the complexities of China’s own past, “The Emperor’s Tomb” has trouble getting off the ground. Once it does, however, it moves at a good clip, has Berry’s standard twists and has a satisfying ending.
But Berry injects too much Chinese history into the plot for the average reader. There were numerous times I had to re-read something in order to understand what was going on. These historical bits clog up a storyline that is already moving at a rapid-fire pace between scenes. It can get dizzy trying to remember who’s doing what and for what reason.
Normally, as a lover of history, I don’t mind that style of writing but for an action-packed thriller, I thought it was too much. And I was hoping for more character exploration, especially between Malone and Vitt.
Maybe that’ll come in Berry’s next adventure, which I hope is clearer than the muddled “The Emperor’s Tomb.”