Evil Nazi schemes, Norse mythology, Pompeian legend and a balloon expedition to the North Pole are narrative bedfellows in this sprawling, fanciful tale driven by the desperate pursuit of a metal ankh, or amulet, discovered on a corpse in an abandoned copper mine.
A bestseller in Sweden, Germany and France, Swedish journalist Wallentin's first novel is an Energizer bunny effort that keeps going and going across continents and time periods, piling on plot details as it does. After the bizarre murder of the diver who discovered the ankh, a history professor known for his research in symbols and myths, Don Titelman, is held for the crime. The son of a Holocaust survivor whose horrific accounts of torture have made him a pill-popping wreck, Titelman is mysteriously abducted by Germans from the Swedish Embassy and locked with his lawyer in a wine cellar. They escape and hook up with Titelman's strange, reclusive sister, Hex, who literally lives underground. The action leads to the Arctic, where Titelman uncovers the truth behind an ill-fated 1897 balloon expedition, during which three men perished, including Swedish photographer Nils Strindberg. For fans of overstuffed adventures who are adept at keeping up with slippery plot developments, this book has much to offer. In the early going, it scores as a larkishly offbeat alternative to the dour mysteries Swedes are known for, and its evocations of the Holocaust can be oddly affecting. But the deeper Wallentin gets into his grandiose concepts, which include the discovery of an ancient buried city in China's Taklimakan desert, the more he loses his narrative thread. Better suited to the role of odd-duck supporting character than protagonist, Titelman fails to elicit the rooting interest he should.
Any one of the plot strains in this ambitious debut might have made for a satisfying novel, but woven together, they create more confusion than excitement.