Monday, May 21, 2012

"[W]hat is buried down there beneath the Sudd?"

3.5 out of 5 stars

This is not one of those adventures that plops you into a conspiracy or conundrum on the very first page, takes off at warp speed, and doesn't give you a moment's rest until the very last page. This is what is known as a 'slow-burner'. The plot gradually builds up, clues and hints are dropped at random points, and the picture develops chapter by chapter until we reach the final thrilling conclusion.

I've read a few of the Pendergast novels Lincoln Child has written with Douglas Preston and enjoyed them; however, this is the first of Child's solo novels I've read. As anyone who knows even the slightest bit about me could've guessed, the Egyptian setting of this novel was right up my alley due to the fact that I'm mad about Egypt and especially ancient Egypt. Not only do I love reading books set in ancient Egypt, I love reading about modern or near-modern individuals discovering that ancient country's hidden treasures, buried by time, sand, and memory. The Third Gate introduced me to a new aspect of that area's geography, being set in the Sudd, a vast swamp formed by the White Nile in southern Sudan and one of the largest wetlands in the world. Although the Sudd is quite treacherous, choked as it with grasses, reeds, papyrus, water hyacinth, and other aquatic plants, forming mats of vegetation which can shift position and block waterways and are in various stages of decomposition, not to mention the ever-changing water levels as well as the dangerous animals, mosquitoes, and parasites, it's an important resource to the rural populations for whom it provides valuable grazing land for their livestock. However, the Sudd as pasture isn't what's presented in The Third Gate. The novel's Sudd is an almost living thing, dark, ominous, fetid, choked with a foul miasma which is nearly solid in its potency and pervasiveness. Add in the discovery of the tomb of Narmer, the first king to have unified Upper and Lower Egypt, a string of inexplicable accidents which some believe to be powered by the powerful curse attached to Narmer's tomb, and the enigmatic leader of the entire expedition, Porter Stone, and you've got a situation ripe for danger, discovery, and death.

Yet, despite all these intriguing ingredients, as a whole the book felt slightly lacking. As I said in the first paragraph, this is a slow-burner of a novel, which is fine; I like stories which build to a climax. Yet this was almost too much of a slow-burner. Though the expedition suffers from traumatic and horrific accidents through the first half of the book, to make the tension build and to lead to the biggest event which makes up the climax of the novel, the persons involved are minor characters, so we're not really invested in either the person or the horrible event happening to them. It's only toward the end that things ramp up and the characters around whom the story is revolving get mixed up in the disasters. There just doesn't seem to be enough thrills or action. I think part of that comes from the narrator, one Jeremy Logan, a professor of medieval history and a self-proclaimed “enigmalogist” (an expert in deciphering enigmas). (Well, he's not really the narrator as the novel is told through the 3rd person P.O.V., but his eyes are the ones through which the reader views the action.) Because he's hired as an observer to Stone's expedition and thus witnesses all these events as an observer, it creates a distance which sets the reader apart and diminishes the drama. However, what really torqued me off about this novel is what always sets me off when authors reference ancient Egypt: the use of Greco-Egyptian terms rather than the true Egyptian words. ***Slight spoiler alert*** One of the characters is supposedly channeling an ancient Egyptian. Yet, when that Egyptian speaks, does s/he speak of being “The Mouthpiece of Heru”? No, s/he says they're “The Mouthpiece of Horus,” Horus being the Greek interpretation of the Egyptian divinity. Argghh! That sort of thing annoys me to no end; it's not only one of my pet peeves, it's my main pet peeve, the one I dress up in little sweaters, take out for walkies, and feed only the best organic pet peeve food.

For all that, though, the history, the supernatural aspects, the Egyptological discoveries (even if they are fake) are quite entertaining; in fact, they're the strengths of the novel and are what make it work when other aspects fail. Not to mention the writing itself, the technical makeup of it, is strong: vivid descriptions, realistic dialogue, well-paced scenes. What does that add up to? A book that, though slowly-paced, compelled me to keep reading to discover how it all turned out.

Read May 15-21, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program May 21, 2012

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