If you’re not aboard the Steve Berry bandwagon yet, his new Cotton Malone thriller will be the book that makes you jump on it. Berry hits on all cylinders in ways that he has never done previously, combining fast-paced action with an extremely deep and detailed plot based on events that took place thousands of years ago. The result is a definitive page-turner that will not only satisfy and entertain readers but also educate them.
"...three days of narrow escapes, violence, and more double and triple crosses than you can shake a saber at..."
Malone is a soldier of fortune turned bookstore proprietor who continuously is drawn back into the game. As the primary story in THE EMPEROR’S TOMB begins, Malone is minding his own business when an anonymous note directs his attention to a website featuring a video with Cassiopeia Vitt. Malone has had his bacon saved by Vitt on more than one occasion, but the footage, which shows her being waterboarded, looks like it will give him the opportunity to return the favor. The video instructs Malone to retrieve an object of antiquity that she has left with him for safekeeping. There’s just one problem: he doesn’t have any such thing in his possession. Of course this isn’t going to prevent Malone from rescuing Vitt.
Thus begins three days of narrow escapes, violence, and more double and triple crosses than you can shake a saber at, all of which brings Malone more and more deeply into a reluctant involvement in a titanic struggle for the leadership of the People’s Republic of China. His quest takes him from Copenhagen to Antwerp to China, where the tomb of China’s first emperor may hide a secret that has the potential to totally upset the world’s balance of power in any number of ways and to explode a widely believed scientific tenet. Not everyone escapes unscathed; one secondary character doesn’t make it to the end of the book, resulting in Malone and Vitt’s relationship being changed in ways yet to be seen.
The major character, however, is the history of China, which is the prime mover and shaker of the book’s plot and cast. Berry did yeoman’s work in his research, but there is more here than a simple regurgitation of factoids and figures to provide a timeout in between the explosions, karate and heavy breathing. He demonstrates an understanding and appreciation for the culture of China, skillfully interweaving it into the novel’s plot and context, so that the last page not only completes the text but also serves as a jumping-off point for readers’ further research into the subject matter.
This is also true with respect to a crucial plot element. If you’re not familiar with the concept of abiotic oil, you will be by the time you have finished THE EMPEROR’S TOMB. Pick it up for that reason, and keep reading for another: it’s a prime example of storytelling at its best.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 5, 2011