William Dietrich’s The Rosetta Key takes the reader back to 1799, when Napoleon invaded Egypt and Palestine. American adventurer Ethan Gage, the intrepid hero of the novel, finds himself in a mob of Ottoman prisoners surrounded by French grenadiers. Napoleon has given the order to execute all the prisoners:
“My former benefactor and recent enemy, sitting on his horse like a young Alexander, was (through desperation or dire calculation) about to display a ruthlessness that his own marshals would whisper about for many campaigns to come.” (p. 4)
Needless to say, Ethan not only survives, but starts a quest for the mysterious Book of Thoth. Supposedly written by a being called Thoth who became an Egyptian god and a predecessor of the Greek god Hermes, this book is a key to incredible knowledge and immortality. The Egyptian pharaohs hid it under the Great Pyramid, but it was later stolen by Moses before he began his journey to the Promised Land. Ethan has already searched for the book with the beautiful Astiza and his arch-enemy Silano. However, both Astiza and Silano fall from a balloon while escaping Egypt. Gage ends up on a British ship captained by Sidney Smith, who is on his way to defend Palestine from Napoleon. Persuaded to spy for England, Gage enters Jerusalem to begin his search for the Book of Thoth once again.
His quest takes him on an amazing journey through many amazing locations: tunnels below the Temple Mount, hidden Templar chapels, a temple carved from living rock in Jordan, the city of Acre, Temple Prison in Paris, and the mysterious laboratories of Silano in the Tulieres in Paris. On the way, he enlists Astiza, Silano, and a motley crew of sailors and adventurers to help in his quest. He falls in love with a local girl, almost dies in Napoleon’s attack on Acre, is buried in the desert sand, meets Napoleon’s wayward wife Josephine, finds the Book of Thoth and then loses it, and discovers that the Rosetta Stone (which would later unlock the secrets of the Egyptian pharaohs) was also the “key” to translating the Book of Thoth. Could the Rosetta Key unlock the secrets of the universe?
The novel’s hero is the proverbial adventurer - “I, Ethan Gage, have spent most of my thirty-four years trying to keep out of too much trouble and away from too much work.” (p. 5) As a student of the great Benjamin Franklin, he learns a great deal about electricity. He uses these lessons as he faces life-and-death situations. During the course of the novel, he meets and interacts with several fascinating historic figures. Both Napoleon and Sidney Smith play a major role in the development of the plot in this novel. However, Ethan Gage is not a superhero; he is vulnerable. While spending time in Jerusalem, he falls in love with the shy but beautiful Miriam, asking her to marry him once he returns from his quest for the Book of Thoth. Even though he fights long and hard to find the Book of Thoth, ultimately he does not want it for himself. He wants to keep it out of the hands of the evil Silano.
“The only thing I was certain of is that if the text promised immortality, I wanted nothing to do with it in this world. Life is hard enough without bearing it forever.” (p. 269)
William Dietrich, the author of The Rosetta Key, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for his reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Since then, he has written three nonfiction books and seven novels. Napoleon’s Pyramids introduced Ethan Gage, and The Rosetta Key continues his story. William Dietrich’s fascination with history, which began in his novel Hadrian’s Wall (2004), continues in this novel about the French-English conflict in Palestine in 1799. Dietrich’s descriptions of late 18th-century Palestine are beautifully crafted: “Olive trees had the girth of a wine cask, the wood twisted by countless centuries. Odd bits of historic rubble jutted from the prow of every hill.” (p. 25) In the end, Ethan Gage has a front-row seat on Napoleon’s rise to power in France. What a wonderful and exciting way to learn about the intricacies of history.