An age-old grudge links ancient Egypt and 17th-century France in Baker’s adventuresome debut novel.
In 1671 Bordeaux, as the novel opens, René Gilbert has just slain three men in self-defense. In disgust, he lays his sword at his Maestro’s feet, vowing never to kill again. That resolution doesn’t last long, however; two years later, René, now 18, must take up his sword to avenge a friend in a duel over a woman’s honor. Although he defeats the villainous Victor Gaspard, the feud doesn’t end there; instead, the dying Victor is possessed by the spirit of Horemheb, an Egyptian pharaoh’s general. He’s been sent to assassinate René—known in his previous incarnation as Yochanan ben Avram, a Hebrew doctor—for resisting the will of the sun god Amun Ra. As René plans an escape at sea, his ancient enemy sucks the life out of French peasants to sustain Victor’s body; he then skulks in Château Gaspard as he awaits his next chance to kill his nemesis. René’s odyssey leads to encounters with a wide variety of people and cultures, including English slavers, Dutch sailors, Spanish Jews, pirates, and a Moroccan sheikh and his alluring daughter. Baker enlivens his scenes with terrific bouts of swordplay, which results in what the narrator calls “elegant carnage.” Likewise, scenes of a costume party and a theatrical performance benefit from sumptuous descriptions of clothing, food, and drink. If there’s one central flaw, however, it’s the dialogue: the characters sound like 19th-century cockney Englishmen (“Goin’ in to wet your whistle, are ye, Worm?”) or contemporary Americans (“It ain’t necessary for you to know who we are”). Baker successfully evokes each setting, but the novel’s sweep, while impressive, is almost too broad. As a result, it can seem like four books in one; the sections in France, Malaga, ancient Egypt, and at sea, might each have been extended into separate volumes. But even though this absorbing, globe-trotting storyline sometimes veers toward the far-fetched, it leaves the door open for sequels to win over the unconvinced.
Alexandre Dumas meets Horatio Hornblower and The Mummy in this sweeping, swashbuckling tale.