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Monday, March 23, 2009

“The Dakota Cipher” by William Dietrich w/Bonus Essay (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Official William Dietrich Website
Order “The Dakota Cipher
Read An Excerpt
Read An Interview
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “Napoleon's Pyramids” & “The Rosetta Key

INTRODUCTION:The Dakota Cipher” by William Dietrich is the third historical thriller with a touch of the supernatural in what is proving to be a very successful series. It follows the adventures of one Ethan Gage, a rakish American adventurer with a talent for getting in and out of trouble as well as making powerful friends and enemies. Though part of a series, “The Dakota Cipher” is a standalone and can be read independently. The first two books, “Napoleon's Pyramids” and “The Rosetta Key”, were reviewed together HERE and are basically just one big novel split into two parts. “The Dakota Cipher” picks up soon after “The Rosetta Key” ends and provides some back story as well as the intervening events which are depicted in Ethan’s remembrance, but the book features a completely new cast of characters outside of Gage and the man whose shadow looms large over the time period and whom Ethan both admires and fears/detests in equal measure—the current First Consul of France, one Napoleon Bonaparte...

NOTE: The following review will contain only marginal spoilers for the first two books, so it may be used as a springboard for those readers just getting into the series, which is just excellent.

SETTING:The Dakota Cipher” opens in the glittering Paris of late 1800. Napoleon is celebrating after his victory at Marengo which sealed his hold on power. Back into the First Consul’s graces after helping him win Marengo with a timely coup and a desperate ride on the Italian plains, Ethan is celebrating in his own inimitable style by gambling at cards, helping the American diplomats seal a friendship treaty with France, and hooking up with the beautiful Pauline Bonaparte, the youngest and dearest sister of his boss. Of course, Pauline is married to an important general, so it’s a risky business, but an encounter with a strange Norwegian named Magnus Bloodhammer, who professes to being an admirer of Ethan, could be even riskier.

The novel then moves to America, the place of Gage’s birth, at the start of both the Jeffersonian era and the expansion beyond the Appalachians, as well as the erection of the new city named after the first President. Here Ethan arrives to greet the just inaugurated Jefferson.

Presaging Lewis & Clark whom we meet as young promising officers at Jefferson “court”, Ethan and Magnus set up in the wilderness for an ostensibly French-American mission to cement the recently signed treaty.The two cousins, Lady Aurora and Lord Cecil Somerset, hail from the hallowed names of the high English aristocracy, but they seem to prefer the rough wilderness of the Great Lakes where they lead a prosperous Anglo-Canadian trading company. They have some strange friends and acquaintances including reviled American traitor scout Captain Simon Girty, famous Mohawk chief and British war hero Joseph Brant, and ambitious Shawnee rising star Tecumseh. None of course, are very friendly to their new neighboring nation that Gage represents, and later we meet brutal Dakota chief Red Jacket, whose reasons for allying himself with the British are such:

The French do not stay, the British stay lightly, but the Americans stay and wound the earth wherever they go.”

FORMAT/INFO:The Dakota Cipher” stands at 368 pages divided over forty-four numbered chapters and includes a map of Gage's peregrination in the Great Lakes/Mississippi Basin area at the beginning and a historical note at the end of the book. As with the first two Gage novels, the narration is via Ethan's point-of-view and takes place mostly in the present of the novel, with occasional flashbacks fleshing out a bit of the backstory and the intervening year between Bonaparte's coup and the start of the novel. “The Dakota Cipher” is a standalone with a clear ending, but there are many possibilities for future novels. March 24, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “The Dakota Cipher” via

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: After the in-favor/out-favor gyrations that marked the relationship with Napoleon in “The Rosetta Key”, Ethan is finally on excellent terms with the First Consul. After all, Ethan suggested, in jest of course, the St. Bernard pass Alps crossing that Napoleon used in emulating Hannibal which surprised the Austrians. As Napoleon puts it, idiot savants and their ridiculous ideas have their uses especially at the hands of a bold general. Later, working as a spy ineptly disguised as a savant explorer, Ethan's luck held and he managed to save Napoleon's army—and most likely his career—thanks to some astute observations, his skill at fast drawing a gun, and a desperate ride across the Italian countryside.

But enjoying life as a Napoleonic minion is not enough for the man who beat his current master at Acre, flew a balloon to escape an army, cheated English sailors at cards on their own ship, and finally defeated the archvillain Silano while taking his girl, earning Napoleon's grudging esteem and saving his skin. Of course, Astiza had ideas of her own and left to pursue them, so Gage is now free to liven his life by dallying with Pauline, Napoleon’s younger sister and the beautiful wife of a powerful general.

Things start to become complicated though when a wild card Norwegian adventurer named Magnus enters Ethan's life, prompting Gage to take on a diplomatic mission overseas. From here, our two heroes find their way from New York and Washington to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Basin. Along the way, they encounter the beautiful siren-like Aurora and the well-mannered but deadly Lord Somerset who make things even more interesting . . . and dangerous.

Meanwhile, Magnus, the giant Norse, seems just like the straightforward Norwegian patriot he claims to be, set on freeing his country from Swedish yoke. However, Magnus has dark secrets of his own and we are left guessing where his ultimate loyalty lies as well as why he specifically focused on Gage to be his partner...

Writing-wise, the Native American lifestyle and its many characters from various tribes are well-described in a very nuanced way, as is the now vanished culture of the valiant French-Canadian trappers and fur gatherers of the Grand Lakes. The wordplay is as witty as always and the interactions between characters are superbly done. “The Dakota Cipher” is also a page turner, one that I finished reading in a single sitting.

CONCLUSION: After the major surprise that was “Napoleon's Pyramids” and the excellent “The Rosetta Key”, I wanted more Ethan Gage adventures and was very excited when “The Dakota Cipher” was announced. A superb continuation of the romp-like style of the original books, with the same witty wordplay, clever interaction between characters, and all around fun, “The Dakota Cipher” fulfilled my very high expectations while dialing up the stakes in the series. Highly, highly recommended...

Bonus Essay by William Dietrich:

While my novel The Dakota Cipher is cheerful fiction, it and the two Ethan Gage novels before it are based on real history and science. The 1801 setting of the novel is fascinating in itself—this is when our modern world began—but the books also explore ancient history and modern speculation that challenge our conventional view of the past.

Let me discuss in turn my fascination with the Napoleonic era, 1801 America, pre-Columbian Norse exploration, and alternative theories of early human history.

Napoleon Bonaparte is a novelist’s dream, and the Jupiter who sucks Ethan into his orbit. A hero to some biographers and a villain to others, Bonaparte appeals to us moderns as a self-made man, the poor kid from Corsica who turns a French military education into mastery of his adopted country and, nearly, mastery of the world. Napoleon is anything but consistent, contradicting his philosophies with his own quotations. He was an opportunist, adapting to circumstance, and at once idealistic and cynical, romantic and ruthless. In his ambition and will he created the template, I would argue, for all the high-reaching politicians, generals, capitalists and artists who have come after him. He was the first successful manipulator of public opinion, the master of propaganda, the creator of a secret police, and so brilliantly precocious that he was a general at 21 and finished by 46. He was so mercurial that even eye-witness descriptions of his appearance differ markedly. He was so brilliant that he reformed not just the army, but law, education, and French public works. He was so blind that he initiated wars that killed millions of people.

Napoleon’s era was, if anything, even more melodramatic than the conqueror’s career. The tumult of ideas had been set loose by the American and French revolutions and society was at a boil. This was the time war enlisted whole nations with brilliant uniforms, gallant charges, and devastating carnage. Dresses were scandalous, gambling epidemic, careers risky, ships magnificent, art romantic, gossip malicious, and invention fertile. This was the start of the industrial and scientific revolutions. People could rise by merit as well as birth, and fight not just for a king but for ideas. A great deal of the world was still unexplored, and the opportunities for adventure were boundless.

I’m equally fascinated by the early history of the United States. In 1801 America was a nation of just 5 million people, largely confined east of the Appalachians. New York was a small city of 60,000. Roads were wretched, distances vast, and the future unbounded. Thomas Jefferson estimated it would take a thousand years to fill the region east of the Mississippi with settlers. Corn, salt pork and whiskey were the foundation of the frontier diet. Only the Senate side of the Capitol was finished, and the White House had just been occupied.

The North American continent was an arena of contending empires: British, French, Spanish, and Native American. Indians still had formidable military power. The tribes also represented an alternative lifestyle that both repelled and fascinated Europeans. White captives describe a world of astonishing freedom, humor and beauty, but a life in which Indians also contended with periodic hunger, war, and torture if captured. The tribes were being destroyed by disease and pushed west by immigration, and everyone was striving for balance in a raw nation still being invented. It is this world Ethan Gage traverses in The Dakota Cipher.

Ethan is on a quest for a mythical Norse artifact, but the novel’s idea that Norse explorers could have reached Minnesota is based on compelling recent research. Whole books have been written on this topic, but I’ll try to summarize.

We know that Medieval Norse established a settlement at Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows site about 1003. Now there is serious research into the idea that not only did the Norse go on to New England, but that they might have penetrated to the Upper Midwest.

In 1898, a Minnesota farmer unearthed a slab of rock carved with Norse runes, or letters, that reports a westward Norse expedition and has a date of 1362, some 130 years before Columbus. Some scholars dismissed the find as a hoax, arguing that the shape of some runes don’t correspond to those common at the time.

Recently, however, forensic geologist Scott Wolter examined the stone with modern instruments and concluded the weathering of the incisions is consistent with the early date, not a 19th Century forgery. His collaborator, engineer Richard Nielsen, studied grave markers of the period in Gotland, where part of the expedition originated, and found runes that matched the ones carved in Minnesota.

Other rune stones have been found in New England, Oklahoma, Iowa, and the Dakotas. Metal fragments of European weaponry and tools that predate Columbus have also been discovered. Some 200 boulders with mooring holes similar to those used to tie boats in Scandinavia have been discovered in North America. Since many are far from navigable waters, investigators theorize they were used as guideposts. Lines draw between three such stones intersect on the Kensington, MN, hill where the rune stone was found.

New England evidence includes an etched Templar sword and knight at Westford, MA., a stone tower of mysterious origin in Newport, R.I., and more stones with runes, maps and pictures of 14th Century ships from Maine.

How would a Gotlander get to Minnesota? One possibility is that the Kensington rune stone was moved, by Indians or early settlers, from some other site.

But another is that Norsemen actually rowed there. Kensington is near the headwaters of the Mississippi, the Red-Nelson system that leads north to Hudson Bay, and the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes system.

There are legends of pre-Columbian voyages by Ireland’s St. Brendan in 512, Prince Madoc of Wales in 1170, and Prince Henry Sinclair of Scotland in 1398. Early explorers of the West were intrigued by the light skin and blue eyes of some Mandan Indians on the Missouri River, who lived in agricultural villages reminiscent of medieval European villages. Did European genes and technology somehow get to the Missouri?

In my novel, Thomas Jefferson asks Ethan Gage to investigate these reports.

Why 1362? This gets back to the theme of all three Ethan Gage novels, including Napoleon’s Pyramids and The Rosetta Key. We know a small group of French Crusader knights was given unusual access to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and tunneled there. These Knights Templar then left the Holy Land and in short order became the most powerful military and financial order in Europe. They were crushed two centuries later by a coup by the King of France and the Pole on Friday the 13th, 1309. And the survivors scattered, to places like Gotland and Scotland.

The Black Plague and religious persecution followed. The speculation, among serious modern researchers of Norse exploration, is that some of these Templar survivors ultimately came to America. I invent my own reason for this in The Dakota Cipher, and other investigators have their own.

What, if anything, did the Templars find in the Temple Mount? Theories range from the Ark of the Covenant to heretical scripture, but my novels suggest they found secrets from ancient civilizations that once were powerful and since forgotten.

This idea is not just my invention. One of the mysteries of human history is why civilization started. Judging from the anthropological evidence, home sapiens appear to have had the same brain capacity for at least 100,000 years, yet recorded civilization is only about 5,000 years old. Did people need something to jump-start our progress? Some of the earliest artifacts from Egypt or South America, for example, seem remarkably sophisticated for people starting from scratch.

This brings us to the theory that legends of early gods like the Egyptian Thoth—who taught mankind the basics of civilization—were based on foggy truth: that someone, or something, literally lifted us out of the mud. Were these beings “gods”? Or space aliens? Or representatives of an earlier civilization now entirely lost? Or time travelers?

The great thing about being a novelist is that you can stay comfortably agnostic on the final answer, and just let your hero explore the question. Why do I have fun with Ethan Gage? He’s living in a melodramatic era of real people too eccentric to ever invent, on a planet still full of mystery, and with endless riddles to keep him speculating. I have no idea what he’ll ultimately find, but I do enjoy being invited along on his epic journeys. The adventure will continue with a fourth book in the series—and perhaps many more after that...


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