In 1351 BC, Akhenhaten, the Sun-Pharaoh, vanishes into the desert, leaving clues to his mysterious disappearance in the sands beside the Nile. In 1884, a British soldier serving in Sudan discovers the remains of a submerged temple dedicated to a god fed by human sacrifice. The soldier’s mission, though, is to reach General Gordon in Khartoum which is under siege by the forces of the enigmatic Mahdi. What he takes from the temple may be lost. In the present day, maritime archaeologist Jack Howard undertakes a dangerous dive into the Nile waters on the hunt for not only Akhenaten but also this Victorian British soldier, Major Edward Mayne of the Royal Engineers, who carried his own secrets.
It’s been a while since the publication of a David Gibbins novel but Pharaoh is well worth the wait. The last book in his Jack Howard thriller series, The Gods of Atlantis (review here), seemed to me to have an element of closure about it, bringing to a conclusion a circle that began with the first of the novels, Atlantis. In Pharaoh, Gibbins picks up a theme he visited in The Tiger Warrior in 2009, the history of Howard’s namesake and great great grandfather who served in the British Army in the the late 19th century. Gibbins here expands this to create an utterly absorbing historical adventure set in the Sudan in the 1880s. The original Howard is not a main player but he does give his descendant, our Jack Howard, a path into this fascinating period of British Imperial history. The thriller element that sat rather uncomfortably (I thought) in some of Gibbins’ earlier novels is at last allowed to have a rest, popping up here and there when needs be, but allowing itself to be replaced by what David Gibbins does best and does so well: historical adventure and archaeological mystery. When the adventure is as exciting as it is here, it is too good not to be allowed to speak for itself.
Following an introduction set in ancient Egypt, the novel is divided between modern day Egypt and Sudan and its Victorian past, when the British army was attempting to float or drag a small armada of boats through the cataracts of the Nile into the Sudan. They were in the perfectly awful position to be picked off one by one by the snipers of the Mahdi. Luckily for the British, they have with them the sharpest shooter of them all, Mayne, who, with his Native American scout Charrière, is on a mission from highest command to reach General Gordon. Mayne’s fascination for ancient Egypt has to take second place.
Almost a century and a half later, Jack Howard and his good friend and colleague Costas are on the trail of Akhenaten, along this same stretch of Nile, now mostly inundated since the construction of the Aswan Dam. They pick up the scent of Mayne and follow the story to its conclusion.
Jack and Costas, as always, are thoroughly good company. Their humour and ease together is matched only by their bravery and by their expertise. In previous novels, Jack’s lengthy (albeit very interesting) explanations of archaeological and historical details can cause the action of the stories to flounder but here that is not the case. The archaeological diving scenes are so well done, perfectly capturing the thrill, danger and claustrophobia. What takes precedent here, though, is Mayne’s story and it is so exciting and gripping, I could not stand to put the novel down. This is a period of British and Egyptian history I know next to nothing about but Gibbins here brings it to life, intensifying how almost alien this environment must have felt to the British (and Canadian) soldiers dragging the boats through the crocodile-infested waters by bringing in glimpses and clues to the exotic ancient history that surrounded these men on their dangerous journey.
The Battle of Abu Klea is included here and I recall very few battle scenes I have read that are as intense as this one, if any. I was actually shocked by it and totally absorbed. Mayne is a fine creation but so too is General Gordon. We meet other famous men such as Kitchener but General Gordon comes alive in a way I wasn’t expecting.
Pharaoh is a superb novel. When I finished it, I remarked that I would have love to have read another 500 pages. Fortunately, the story will continue in Pyramid and I am guessing that this sequel will be much more focused on Howard and Costas (in extremis, no doubt).This seventh Jack Howard novel is most definitely the finest amongst a series of great books. Put aside your assumptions of what a thriller should be and instead immerse yourself in one of the best historical adventures you’ll read this year.
The Gods of Atlantis