Thursday, August 2, 2012

Review - Spear of Seth by René Daniel

Short review: Alex is pulled into an intrigue over the discovery of a mysterious underworld beneath Egypt where godlike tyrants, giant insects, and a vicious rival repeatedly try to kill him.

Magical poison
A quest to find lost Egypt
Monsters and danger

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: If one wants to read a yarn about brave adventurers exploring lost civilizations, one could open Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, or H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, or pretty much anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Or one could pick up Spear of Seth and get much the same experience with some Dan Brown-style fictitious history and conspiracies thrown in for good measure. The end result is a fun adventure with a pair of likable protagonists, some reasonably interesting adversaries, and a cast of memorable supporting characters.

Spear of Seth is billed as book one of the "Tales of Van Senmut College", so presumably the denizens of the fictional Pennsylvania college established in this book will be a continuing feature of the series. The two protagonists found in this volume, the somewhat indifferent pre-med student Alex Kyan, and the overachieving daughter of the Dean of the school Heather Van Senmut, are both entertaining and likable characters in their own unique ways. As the first book in the series, it seems that this may be something of a paranormal version of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew stories, with youthful protagonists solving mysteries and foiling villains. And although they don't actually form a romantic connection in this volume, the potential is clearly established, providing for an ongoing Moonlighting type of relationship that will provide Mr. Daniel with plenty of material for story lines. With these characters plus the supporting cast of professors from the College, the potential for this series seems to be reasonably strong.

Of course, talking about potential of a series is not particularly interesting unless the first book is good. Fortunately, this book is pretty good. After a slow start, the book settles into a comfortable rhythm switching viewpoint characters in each chapter alternating between Alex and Heather. By alternating the viewpoint character, the story is able to show both sides of the relationship between the two as they move from mutual animosity to grudging respect to a congenial friendship. But this relationship unfolds against the backdrop of a main story that involves poisoning, a secret magical history of the world, and a journey to Egypt to uncover a lost temple. In other words, a tale worthy of an adventure featuring Indiana Jones. Except in this story the main characters are a pair of college students, a chemistry professor, an Egyptian archaeologist, and an eccentric ex-professor obsessed with the study of magic. Aligned against them are a wealthy industrialist, his college age son, and various corrupt members of the local government in Egypt. The basic thrust of the story is that Heather's father is poisoned and the secret to curing him may be found among the ruins of an ancient temple on Elephantine Island on the Nile.

Once the story gets going, we follow our heroes as they adventure together, are separated, and eventually reunited. Along the way, they discover a hidden Egyptian underworld beneath the feet of the denizens of the modern nation. While journeying along the river that binds together the regions of this strange twilight realm the protagonist has a entertaining series of adventures involving hostile natives and baleful monsters while sparring with a villainous adversary who also descended to the underworld hunt for the mysterious Spear of Seth. This underworld adventure is where the "fantasy" element of the story shows up, but this element is mostly muted. Anyone hoping for Egyptian sorcerers turning staves into snakes will be disappointed, but over sized insects, spiders, and frogs are definitely on the literary menu. As is a bizarre civilization ruled over by apparently absurdly long-lived beings, and a final obstacle that may or may not be Earthly in origin. Although the path the book takes is more or less dictated by the ancient Egyptian river of the afterlife, the story does have something of a video game feel, with the protagonist having to navigate through one area before proceeding through the river gate to the next. Despite this quirk, the story still holds together, even though the denouement seems very much like a video game "boss fight".

Daniel breaks up the action underground by alternating with a parallel story taking place in the above ground modern world, which allows him to have several cliffhanger chapter endings throughout the story as he switches back and forth between the two story lines. In some ways the above-ground story line is more enjoyable because it is not as predictable and seems less like a railroad pushing the characters forward. The parallel story also helps fill in all of the background information that makes the underground story interesting, and also helps lay the groundwork for the ongoing series. The parallel story also features a wider variety of interesting characters than the underground story, so much so that when the two story lines finally meet up late in the book, it is somewhat disappointing when all of the action moves underground.

On the whole Spear of Seth is a fun book and a worthy descendant of the "lost world" and mystery books that clearly inspired it. Despite a somewhat predictable ending, the story holds up well enough and the characters are engaging and enjoyable to read about. The simple question to ask when reading the first novel in a planned series is this: would I want to read more books in this series? The answer to that question when it comes to Spear of Seth is yes.

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