March 12, 2009

When Savagery Meets Civilization

By: Sean DeButts

Ethan Gage embarks on a quest for Viking treasure in the American frontier

   Ethan Gage returns in another adventure filled with innuendo, intrigue and pagan treasure. This time he travels the American frontier in 1801, in The Dakota Cipher (March 2009) by William Dietrich. While in The Rosetta Key Gage sought to keep the Book of Thoth out of Napoleon’s hands, this time Gage seeks a powerful Norse artifact called Thor’s Hammer. In tow are a cycloptic, axe-wielding Norseman seeking to use Thor’s hammer to free Norway, a captive Indian maiden in search of her homeland, a spirited but under-sized French trapper, and an enigmatic, aristocratic couple who match Agrippina and Caligula in perversity.

   As in Napoleon’s Pyramids, Gage ignites and fans his misadventure by getting friendly with the wrong woman.

   After bedding Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s overly sociable sister, Gage narrowly escapes being turned into a human fireworks display by mysterious assailants. Ethan flees to America as a French ambassador with the Norseman Magnus Bloodhammer. Recruited by Thomas Jefferson to investigate the West, Ethan makes his way through the bustling post-colonial towns to trading outposts filled with mingling Indians, French and English, through the Great Lakes and finally to the windswept Great Plains, recently emptied by smallpox. At each step of his journey, Gage’s assailants trail him in his quest.

   The Dakota Cipher proves worth reading and bears Dietrich’s trademark, vivid descriptions. Dietrich makes the crowded trapper towns and the desolate plains almost tangible. The focus on Norse mythology and on Viking settlers in the new world also is an interesting shift from the series' previous focus on Egyptian mythology. However, The Dakota Cipher lacks the spark of the previous Gage novels. It has less of the over-the-top excitement and MacGyver-inspired gadgetry that made Rosetta such an adventurous romp. As an adventurer in the same vein as Indiana Jones, Gage is in his element in ancient Middle Eastern cities, where he can steal treasure from ancient temples and escape snake pits.

   That said, The Dakota Cipher sets the stage for an exciting and emotionally complex sequel. Count Silano, the arch-villain from The Rosetta Key, was only part of a larger group of illuminati who have perverse designs for the world and who want Ethan dead. The ending guarantees that Ethan can no longer remain a carefree spirit when he returns to the Mediterranean in Dietrich’s next installment, and he has a vendetta to settle.

Bill granted an interview before the release of The Dakota Cipher on Mar. 24, 2009.

The Inkwell Review:
A common theme of the Ethan Gage adventures is the inter-connectedness of ancient myths. For example, Magnus Bloodhammer draws strong comparisons between Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, and the tree of life in the Bible. Researching these different myths from different cultures and religions, has it given you any insight into mythology or human nature?

William Dietrich:
I was struck by the commonality between the different myths. The same ideas come up again and again. I had never heard until I researched this book that Odin, for example, was hung or crucified on a tree, that he was stabbed in the side by a spear. You don’t know at what point those stories entered Norse mythology. Were they Christian ideas that had filtered north, were they originally in the Norse, or were they coincidental?

IR: Which of the texts you researched and individuals you interviewed were most crucial in forming the story?

WD: I read quite a bit of information about Thomas Jefferson and about that period of the United States. I read a book on the Internet, I think it was written by Henry James, about America in 1800, and that was quite useful. I read theories about how the capital of D.C. had Masonic origin, and then quite a bit about Indian culture, and the experience of white captives with Indians. These captives were writing about what life was like with the Indians for two or three years at a time, until they managed to get back to civilization. It gave a you-are-there immediacy to what I was reading.

IR: You didn’t seem to buy much into Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage.

WD: No … it was obvious that the absence of civilization does not bring out any particular nobility, and what was interesting about the Indians was they have the same joys and sorrows that any other society does.

IR: For experiential research, did you travel to the Great Plains or similar areas?

WD: I did. I started in Detroit, actually, and made a circuit of the Great Lakes, more or less following the path Ethan did, but I was mostly on land. And then into Minnesota, and across that state. When I was in Minnesota, there was a violent thunder and lightning storm that inspired, in part, the conclusion of the book.

IR: Who were the inspirations for Aurora and Somerset? In terms of sheer evil, they seemed up there with Agrippina and Caligula.

WD: [Laughs] They were products of my imagination. They got more ghastly as time went on. For example, the sort of incestuous relationship came to me later on, while I was trying to make Aurora even less appealing. In some ways, memorable villains are even more important to a story than memorable heroes. I’m looking for ways to have these characters stick in your mind, and have you rooting for their eventual demise.

IR: That’s what happened to me at the end of the book. I wanted Aurora to get her comeuppance. What’s coming next in the Gage Saga?

WD: In the sequel, Ethan returns to Europe and winds up on a mission to the Mediterranean, and gets caught up with the Barbary Pirates, and he meets a number of characters from the earlier books, and there’s sort of a lot of twists and turns that I think people will find quite interesting. I don’t want to give away too much, but his personal life is getting more complicated all the time.

IR: Is there anything else you were hoping to say?

WD: One other thing I would add is the whole idea of whether the Norse preceded Columbus, and to what degree they did, is an interesting archaeology controversy. It’s a long way from being established that they went anywhere beyond Newfoundland, but there is some intriguing evidence, and there’s some quite serious people who are looking into it, and I had fun including that in the novel as well.

IR: Whether they actually ended up in Minnesota is tantalizing. Bill, thank you for interviewing again.

WD: Thank you, Sean.

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