Review: The Emperors Tomb by Steve Berry

emperors tomb berry Review: The Emperors Tomb by Steve Berry

Steve Berry doesnt muck around. Within five pages retired Justice Department operative Cotton Malone finds himself yanked away from his daily potterings in his Copenhagen bookshop and swept up in all manner of conspiracies, double crossings, and rat-a-tat shootings. The catalyst for all of this? Cottons ex-colleague and wealthy amateur archaeologist (and potential romantic interest) Cassiopeia Vitt has been kidnapped and subjected to tortureover an ancient item apparently in Cottons possession. Soon enough (within another five or so pages), Cotton finds himself flying in to China with the butt-kicking Cassiopia, the hard-to-read Viktor Tomas, whose alliances are never a truly known quantity, and a couple of Chinese politicians whose loyalty is equally as ambiguous as Tomass. The mission? To retrieve a stolen lamp that may prove that oil is truly abiotic and thus replenishablea fact that would allow China to sever its ties to Russia and the US and become a (more) formidable world power. The complicating factors? A missing child, some ninja eunuchs, various complex political machinations, double/triple/quadruple-crossing operatives, and the fact that near enough to everyone wants Malone and his cronies dead.

My thoughts

If your hearts pounding a little faster, and your minds working overtime to figure out whats going on, then youre Steve Berrys ideal reader. If your constitutions on the weaker side, youll want to give this one a miss, because Mr Berry is perhaps the most relentless author Ive come across of late, and like Chuck Norris, hes a man you dont want to mess with.

(Okay, just give me a minute to pause for breath)

Ill admit to a little bit of cynicism when I picked this up to read on the weekend. With my predilection for gorgeous prose and deep, deep characterisation, I tend to eschew plot-heavy books in favour of slim and slight volumes that are told oh-so-beautifully. And lets not beat around the bush and pretend that Berry is a master wordsmith or Freudian analyst, for hes not. The prose is what youd expect from a short novel that runs more than 70 chapters, and the characterisation is similar: think functional, concise, and not especially pretty. But Mr Berry knows how to work his stuff to keep you reading. And if that means torturing poor Malone and his buddies with incessant helicopter flyovers, martial artists in museums, secret tracking devices, and hilariously rendered Russo-English, then thats what hell do. And you know what? For the most part it works, with the novel rocketing along at an impressive clip for most of its 400 or so pages.

Of course, there are times when the pace lags a little, and these sections typically share similar characteristics. You know what Im going to say, dont you? Yes, the ubiquitous info-dump. The Emperors Tomb touches on everything from biotic and abiotic oil to rebuilding 12th century castles to the precise layout of the famed Terracotta Warriors 'and youll find yourself subjected to a treatise on each (and in the case of the last, with bonus diagrams and schematics). Theres an earnestness to these sections that detracts a little from the otherwise wham-bam approach to the story, and I think the book is the worse for it. Im perfectly happy to read a yarn so long as its aware that its a yarn and doesnt try to take itself too seriously. But when it puts on its glasses and tries to get studious, thats when I start to take issue.

In addition to these mounds of info-dumpery, The Emperors Tomb is weakened a little by the fact that it tries to outwit everyoneand having done so, to take them for a ride, pull the wool over their eyes, and then pull their leg. There are more twists in this book than youll find on the average 50s rockabilly dance floor, and one almost needs a visual concept map to tease out whos doing what, and why. Viktor Tomas, for example, is utterly unfathomable, so often does he switch sides. To be honest, Im not entirely sure that he knows why hes doing what he doesperhaps hes simply a pathological liar? Pau Wen is equally as ambiguous, and the fact that hes rather stereotypically characterised as an impassive, inscrutable Chinese (one can imagine him stroking his china as he talks) doesnt help matters. Things also slow down during the ubiquitous fight scenes, which are notoriously hard to render on the pageand perhaps shouldnt be. The in-media-res beginning involving Cassipeias waterboarding is also problematic, and I cant help that the novel would be stronger without it.

I found wise-cracking, belligerent Malone rather dire, too, and when one doesnt identify with the protagonist, its hard to fully get into a book. This is a personal preference, of course: I typically avoid brash, tell-it-like-it-is people in real life, and this habit extends into my reading. But really, its no wonder that Viktor Tomas seems to want nothing more than to give Malone a good bruisin with his pistol. Hopefully now that Malones latest adventure is over, he can get back to selling booksand learning how to deal with the general public.


The Emperors Tomb is the latest release in Berrys Cotton Malone series, and stands quite well on its own, although Id imagine that reading the series in order would result in a little more grounding for the reader. Its a fast and zippy (and occasionally zany) read suited perfectly for those long airport waitsso long as youre sure that no spies or secret operatives are reading over your shoulder. Thriller lovers with a yen for historical fiction and like a bit of light politics with their morning coffee will find this one good value for money, but literary readers who love to lose themselves in finely wrought sentences and fascinating characters may find themselves a little underwhelmed.

Rating: ????? (good)

With thanks to Meryl L Moss Media Relations for the review copy

Purchase The Emperors Tomb from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA

Other books by Steve Berry:

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