There’s no doubt that when Steve Berry decides to write a book set in a different country to his native one, he researches every last fact he can – from its people, politics, climate and geography, to its history. The Emperor’s Tomb is no different in that regard – the tomb referred to being the one containing the terracotta warriors associated with one of the ancient Chinese dynasties and, as it turns out, so much more as well.
The story features Cotton Malone, former naval pilot and lawyer and member of the mysterious Magellan Billet who, two years earlier, retired to run a second bookstore in Copenhagen. Only, we rarely if ever get to see Malone in the store let alone reading as he’s always called upon to intervene in a global crisis – including in this novel.
When he’s sent a mysterious note with a web address and logs on to find his friend, the marvellously named and very beautiful Cassiopeia Vitt being tortured, he embarks on a whirlwind adventure that will take him to China and immerse him in a conspiracy that involves the Chinese government, the Russians and, of course, the United States as well. That his life is constantly at risk goes without question, but so is that of others, including a four year old boy.
On the brink of a new era, the current Chinese government is due for a change of leadership and there are two men currently vying for the role: one is a ruthless Legalist who will stop at nothing, destroying whatever and whoever stands in his way to achieve power. The other follows a different ideology and eschews violence as a solution unless it’s absolutely necessary, only he lacks the knowledge and support to be a serious contender.
With the Russians, Americans and the powerful Ba sect, a group of eunuchs who seem omniscient, pulling the strings and operating behind the scenes, saying one thing, promising and doing another, violence seems to be the only recourse for everyone. Enter Cotton Malone – not afraid to be the knight errant or even enter communist countries illegally if it means he will save the world. And, of course, violence is his middle name.
But Malone hadn’t counted on Chinese ingenuity, their ability to twist the truth or the past; nor can he rely on those he once believed could be trusted. And so the stage is set for a showdown of epic proportions, one that can change the balance not only in China, but the world.
For all that I can appreciate the research Berry does, and the travel he engages with and his passion to include a great deal of what he learns in his stories to give them authenticity, I feel this novel overdoes it. The plot was quite convoluted and the characters very two-dimensional, stereotypical and predictable. Further, the level of didacticism in this book took away from the story and slowed the pace to a crawl at some points. There were even repetitive bits – for example, on how one is made a eunuch. It was wince-worthy enough the first time (as well as interesting) but reading the details twice smacked of error and poor editing and diluted the effect. Likewise, a number of interesting facts about China were also repeated, rendering them redundant the second time around.
While the biotic and abiotic oil issue was fascinating, again, the plot had so many levels and unnecessary twists and turns, it became more like a labyrinth and I needed Ariadne’s thread to find my way out again.
Overall, however, it was a quick read – a bit of adventure brain candy and, hey, it featured Cotton Malone, a literary chick’s version of the stuff. So, in many ways, it served its purpose but I don’t think it’s as good as some of Berry’s other books.