Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Thriller Review: Kingdom of Darkness by Andy McDermott

When it comes to archaeological adventure thrillers, I'm not sure that there's anyone writing in the genre today who is stronger, smarter, or more consistent than Andy McDermott. His Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase series is like a mixture of Indiana Jones, James Bond, Dirk Pitt, and Jack Bauer. He offers up all the insane chases, explosions, fights, treasure hunting, and puzzle solving you might expect, but does so with a self-referential sense of irony. What really sets his work apart for me is its sly winks to the reader - not quite tongue in cheek, but honestly ironic - that acknowledge the genre tropes, even as he gleefully plays along with them.

Following the rather sobering conclusion to The Valhalla Prophecy, which left our heroes with a life-altering tragedy, Kingdom of Darkness opens on a bittersweet note. Nina and Eddie have come to Hollywood on their bucket list world tour, finding themselves guests of a big budget Hollywood thriller. Their good friend, Grant Thorn, is racing around the set in a Lamborghini Aventador Roadster, part of an over-the-top chase scene that Eddie acknowledges is slightly ridiculous, and which Nina accuses of ignoring the rules of physics. Later that day, of course, when a blonde stranger is gunned down while begging Nina for help, Eddie steals a Hummer limo and leads them on a chase that pretty much mirrors that Hollywood script, right down to the climactic jump through an exploding tanker truck.

It's not just in the Bond/Bauer elements that McDermott has so much fun playing the irony card, however. The story soon takes us beneath the streets of Cairo, to the sealed entrance of Alexander the Great's tomb. There, the young archaeologist in charge accuses Nina and Eddie of destructive archaeology, lecturing them on the fact that real archaeology is not all about brute force and explosions. Of course, it's not long before the Nazis blow their way in, destroying priceless artifacts with a hail of automatic gunfire and grenades. Not to be outdone by the bad guys, Eddie smugly exposes the secret hidden inside the statue of Alexander's horse by deliberately shattering it upon the floor, even as the young archaeologist reminds him they could have done the same thing with x-rays, without destroying it.

What is hidden inside is a clockwork fish that is said to be the key to finding the Spring of Immortality. It's a clever little piece of ancient technology that the young archaeologists compares to the famous Antikythera mechanism - which, as is pointed out, remains unsolved a hundred years later. When Nina dismisses that, and expresses her certainty that solving the fish will only take a couple of days, her own hubby accuses her of doing a Robert Langdon (in a wink-and-a-nod to Dan Brown). She does just that, of course, but it's really just the first step in solving the puzzle and leading the heroes to the ultimate discovery.

I could go on, but I don't want to give the impression that this is all about irony and self-referential humor. That would be to do the series a serious injustice. In terms of history and mystery, Andy McDermott ranks right up there with Cussler and Brown. He does his research, explains the history well, and cleverly weaves fact, myth, and supposition to shape his puzzles. It is fascinating stuff, and it all comes across as plausible - keeping in mind, of course, that a thriller like this can't take decades to develop, decode, and discover. They very conventions of the genre demand that the race for the treasure be both breakneck and dangerous, and once McDermott has acknowledged that, he gives the readers precisely what we're craving. Nina, Eddie, Macy, and Banna do get a chance to steal a few naps or use the facilities (unlike Jack Bauer), but for the most part this is breathless, non-stop action.

The whole Nazi storyline might seem a little preposterous to readers who are new to the series (and there are multiple characters who share that doubt), but when you've already discovered Atlantis, the tomb of Hercules, Excalibur, and the poisonous eitr of Norse mythology, the Spring of Immortality isn't that much of a stretch. What's important here is that McDermott's doesn't settle for the cartoonish villains Indiana Jones - he delves deep into the darkest aspects of their culture and their agenda. These are evil, despicable villains who are still pursuing Hitler's genocidal vision with a zeal and a fanaticism that has only grown stronger over the years. Their maniacal Anti-Semitism, their deplorable treatment of women, and their willingness to sacrifice innocent lives (including a truly terrifying scene involving a burning nursery) are all on display here.

As for the final set piece, the Spring of Immortality itself is one of the most exciting grand discoveries I've ever come across in the genre. It incorporates all of the most fantastical elements of the Alexander romance itself, establishing them not as fanciful narrative additions to the legend, but as a carefully coded series of clues for navigating the traps leading up to the Spring. McDermott doesn't stop there, however. He does have a bit of a moral/philosophical point to make here regarding the uses and abuses of power, and the final climax does a stellar job of forcing the reader to consider the possibilities of immortality in the wrong hands.

Kingdom of Darkness is smart, clever, and exciting stuff. Fans of Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase will appreciate how McDermott resolves some past issues and opens up a new future for them, but new readers will have no trouble getting up to speed on our heroes. If you're looking for a solid archaeological adventure that is as committed to the history as to the thrills, then this is definitely worth a read.


Paperback, 512 pages
Published April 28th 2015 by Dell (first published August 28th 2014)

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