Year: 2014 (29 April)
Source: Review copy
Jonathan Blake is an expert on antiquities and is consultant to the Argo Foundation, a wealthy, respected organisation that restores stolen artefacts to their rightful owners. If you were to ask Blake how he thinks of himself, he would say (no doubt doing the appropriate accent) that he is a pirate, an archaeological Robin Hood, stealing from the bad to give back to the good. When the bad in this case turns out to be a deranged, cult-leading fanatic, Vanya, intent on destroying the world and populating its decimated cities with like-minded megalomaniacs, it gives Blake a chance to combine work with pleasure. Blake’s mission, handed down by an uneasy alliance between Argo and the United States Secret Service, is to travel to Paris to discover why Vanya is so intent on buying on the black market a recently stolen gilded eagle, a standard carried into battle by Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. To keep an eye on him, Blake is also required to take with him a wife, Caitlin, and her little bag of tricks.
What follows is an adventure that takes Blake across Europe, following the clues left not only by Napoleon but also by Byron, Shelley and others, leading him into the catacombs of Paris as well as to mighty castles and islands of the Mediterranean. The goal is an artefact hunted by archaeologists, antiquarians and treasure hunters for centuries, the tomb of Alexander the Great, which, Vanya insists, was discovered and hidden by none other than Bonaparte himself. Vanya, though, is almost the least of Blake’s worries as he finds himself pursued by others intent on keeping the tomb a mystery for evermore as well as Vanya’s sidekick, Rhea, a woman as deadly as she is beautiful.
I am a big fan of well-written archaeological mysteries and The Blood Of Alexander is indeed well-written. It has a humour that tickles the reader rather than bludgeon him or her and it thrills from the very first chapter. Its particular strength is the character of Jonathan Blake. This is a man with an interesting past and throughout the novel Blake lets slip little pieces about his background as we get to know him better. I liked this style and it made me like Blake as well as understand a little more how he came to be this mix of Indiana Jones and James Bond. He does kill people but he does give the impression that he’d prefer not to if he didn’t have to. He also has less of an aura of immortality around him than some thriller heroes.
The story itself is a lot of fun and even though I’ve read a fair few books on the mystery of Alexander’s lost tomb over the years (including Chris Kuzneski’s The Forbidden Tomb just a couple of weeks ago), The Blood of Alexander is a little different and the tomb is one of those mysteries that is more robust than others, able to withstand the assault of multiple thriller writers. I liked the mix of Alexander and Napoleon – arguably this is more of a Napoleon thriller than an Alexander mystery.
There are flaws, though, not least in the portrayal of women. I don’t think there’s an ugly woman in the book. Rhea is terrifying but Blake would still manage a little flirtation with her even while she were pulling his fingernails out. She, and Vanya, are little more than two-dimensional monsters, but that doesn’t stop Rhea from being a very entertaining villain. Caitlin is much more problematic. She starts the novel with so much promise but she soon deteriorates into little more than a simpering accessory. We know that she is playing a role but even so, I think she plays it too well. My other issue with the novel was with the Argo Foundation. Their attitude towards Blake is confused, confusing me.
Nevertheless, what I want from an archaeological thriller most of all is well-written entertainment, with pages that fly through the fingers and characters and plot of a quality that allows the reader to suspend all powers of disbelief. The Blood of Alexander certainly fulfilled its mission and I hope very much that Jonathan Blake will return, although the poor old archaeology, which didn’t come out of this too well, might be hoping otherwise.