Ruff’s (Sh*tty Beijing Bike, 2016) archaeological thriller tells the story of an American writer who gets caught up in an international incident involving China’s famous Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor.
The story begins at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in an unspecified year when Texas secedes from the United States. There, Arthur Biers meets Wyatt Waller, a rich tech guru who has a plan to disrupt the archaeology world by using drones. Wyatt has just returned from Xi’an, China, where his assistant died under mysterious circumstances, and he’s looking for a replacement. That’s where Arthur, a Mandarin-speaking blogger, comes in; he has an interest in historical mysteries, and the unopened Tomb of the First Emperor in Xi’an—best known for the thousands of terra-cotta warriors who “guard” it—is one of the biggest. “All you really have to do is write about the people, and places you see,” explains Wyatt; he’ll be assisting the popular and controversial author Bruce Philips, who’s dead-set on discovering what’s inside the sealed tomb—and verifying Chinese claims that the tomb has never been opened before. Arthur will later be called a grave robber by Chinese newspapers, detained at the Austin airport, and forced to explain to an ambassador how he came to be inside the tomb. Ruff’s thriller does a fine job of mixing ancient mysteries with contemporary geopolitics, and it’s the latter element that gives this thriller a consistently sinister atmosphere. The author’s overall vision is poorly served by his writing, however, which doles out information in a confusing manner. The pacing is also criminally slow throughout, and even the occasional sharp-sounding lines can feel overwritten: “For his family, the Wallers, making money was a science, making a lot of money was an art, and making more money than you’ll ever know what to do with a civic duty.” In the end, the novel feels more like a slog than a lightweight caper.
A sometimes-intriguing but awkwardly executed conspiracy thriller.