Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Lost City by Clive Cussler


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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There’s a special comfort that comes from the predictability that readers find in a series. The fifth offering in Clive Cussler’s Kurt Austin series, Lost City, meets readers expectations for predictability. The hero behaves with honor and skill; the villains are larger than life and truly despicable; the romance remains within the bounds of prime time television. In many ways, reading Lost City provides the kind of entertainment that watching a favorite television series presents: an interesting plot, some entertaining diversion, and the end comes quickly.


Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 4, pp. 36-46:


Two hundred feet below the surface of Lac du Dormeur in waters cold enough to kill an unprotected human, the glowing sphere floated above the gravelly bottom of the glacial lake like a will-o’-the-wisp in a Georgia swamp. Despite the hostile environment, the man and woman seated side by side inside the transparent acrylic cabin were as relaxed as loungers on a love seat.


The man was husky in build, with shoulders like twin battering rams. Exposure to sea and sun had bronzed the rugged features that were bathed in the soft orange light from the instrument panel, and bleached the pale, prematurely steely gray hair almost to the color of platinum. With his chiseled profile and intense expression, Kurt Austin had the face of a warrior carved on a Roman victory column. But the flinty hardness that lay under the burnished features was softened by an easy smile, and the piercing coral-blue eyes sparkled with good humor.


Austin was the leader of NUMA’s Special Assignments Team, cre­ated by former NUMA director Admiral James Sandecker, now vice president of the United States, for undersea missions that often took place secretly outside the realm of government oversight. A marine engineer by education and experience, Austin had come to NUMA from the CIA, where he had worked for a little-known branch that specialized in underwater intelligence gathering.


After coming over to NUMA, Austin had assembled a team of ex­perts that included Joe Zavala, a brilliant engineer specializing in un­derwater vehicles; Paul Trout, a deep-ocean geologist; and Trout’s wife, Gamay Morgan-Trout, a highly skilled diver who had special­ized in nautical archaeology before attaining her doctorate in marine biology. Working together, they had conducted many successful probes into strange and sinister enigmas on and under the world’s oceans.


Not every job that Austin undertook was filled with danger. Some, like his latest assignment, were quite pleasant and more than made up for the bumps, bruises and scars he had collected on various NUMA assignments. Although he had known his female compan­ion only a few days, he had become thoroughly entranced by her. Skye Labelle was in her late thirties. She had olive skin and mis­chievous violet-blue eyes that peered out from under the brim of her woolen hat. Her hair was dark brown, bordering on black. Her mouth was too wide to be called classical, but her lips were lush and sensual. She had a good body, but it would never make the cover of Sports Illustrated. Her voice was low and cool, and when she spoke it was obvious she had a quick intelligence.


Although she was striking rather than pretty, Austin thought she Was one of the most attractive women he had ever met. She reminded him of a portrait of a young raven-haired countess he had seen hang­ing on the wall of the Louvre. Austin had admired how the artist had cleverly caught the passion and unabashed frankness in the subject’s gaze. The woman in the painting had a deviltry in her eyes, as if she Wanted to throw off her regal finery and run barefoot through a meadow. He remembered wishing he could have met her in person. And now, it seemed, he had.


“Do you believe in reincarnation?” Austin said, thinking about the museum portrait.


Skye blinked in surprise. They had been talking about glacial geology.


“I don’t know. Why do you ask?” She spoke American English with a slight French accent.


“No reason.” Austin paused. “I have another, more personal question.”


She gave him a wary look. “I think I know. You want to know about my name.”


“I’ve never met anyone named Skye Labelle before.”


“Some people believe I must be named after a Las Vegas stripper.”


Austin chuckled. “It’s more likely that someone in your family had a poetic turn of mind.”


“My crazy parents,” she said, with a roll of her eyes. “My father was sent to the U.S. as a diplomat. One day he went to the Albu­querque hot air balloon festival and from that day on, he became a fanatical aeronaut. My older brother was named Thaddeus after the early balloonist Thaddeus Lowe. My American mother is an artist, and something of a free spirit, so she thought the idea of my name was wonderful. Father insists he named me after the color of my eyes, but everyone knows babies’ eyes are neutral when they are first born. I don’t mind. I think it’s a nice name.”


“They don’t get any nicer than Beautiful Sky.”


“Merci. And thank you for all this!” She gazed through the bub­ble and clapped her hands in childlike joy. “This is absolutely won­derful! I never dreamed that my studies in archaeology would take me under the water inside a big bubble.”


“It must beat polishing medieval armor in a musty museum,” Austin said.


Skye had a warm, uninhibited laugh. “I spend very little time in museums except when I’m organizing an exhibition. I do a lot of corporate jobs these days to support my research work.”


Austin raised an eyebrow. “The thought of Microsoft and General Motors hiring an expert in arms and armor makes me wonder about their motives.”


“Think about it. To survive, a corporation must try to kill or wound its competition while defending itself. Figuratively speaking.”


“The original ‘cutthroat competition,’ Austin said.


“Not bad. I’ll use that phrase in my next presentation.”


“How do you teach a bunch of executives to draw blood? Figura­tively speaking, of course.”


“They already have the blood lust. I get them to think ‘out of the box,’ as they like to say. I ask them to pretend that they are supply­ing arms for competing forces. The old arms makers had to be met­allurgists and engineers. Many were artists, like Leonardo, who designed war engines. Weapons and strategy were constantly chang­ing and the people who supplied the armies had to adjust quickly to new conditions.”


“The lives of their customers depended on it.”


“Right. I might have one group devise a siege machine while an­other comes up with ways to defend against it. Or I can give one side metal-piercing arrows while the other comes up with armor that works without being unwieldy. Then we switch sides and try again. They learn to use their native intelligence rather than to rely on com­puters and such.”


“Maybe you should offer your services to NUMA. Learning how to blast holes in ten-foot-thick walls with a trebuchet sounds like a lot more fun than staring at budget pie charts.”


A sly smile crossed Skye’s face. “Well, you know, most executives are men.”


“Boys and their toys. A surefire formula for success.”


“I’ll admit I pander to the childish side of my clients, but my ses­sions are immensely popular and very lucrative. And they allow me the flexibility to work on projects that might not be possible on my salary from the Sorbonne.”


“Projects like the ancient trade routes?”


She nodded. “It would be a major coup if I could prove that tin and other goods traveled overland along the old Amber Route, through the Alpine passes and valleys to the Adriatic, where Phoeni­cian and Minoan ships transported it to the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean. And that the trade went both ways.”


“The logistics of your theoretical trade route would have been complex.”


“You’re a genius! Exactly my point!”


“Thanks for the compliment, but I’m just relating it to my own experiences moving people and material.”


“Then you know how complicated it would be. People along the land route, like the Celts and the Etruscans, had to cooperate on trade agreements in order to move the materials along. I think trade was a lot more extensive than my colleagues would admit. All this has fascinating implications about how we view ancient civilizations. They weren’t all about war; they knew the value of peaceful alliances a long time before the EU or NAFTA. And I mean to prove it.”


“Ancient globalization? An ambitious goal. I wish you luck.”


“I’ll need it. But if I do succeed I’ll have you and NUMA to thank. Your agency has been wonderfully generous in the use of its research vessel and equipment.”


“It goes both ways. Your project gives NUMA a chance to test our new vessel in inland waters and to see how this submersible operates under field conditions.”


She made a sweeping gesture with her hand. “The scenery is per­fectly lovely. All we need is a bottle of champagne and foie gras.”


Austin leaned over and handed a small plastic cooler to his companion. “Can’t help you there, but how about a jambon et fromage sandwich?”


“Ham and cheese would be my second choice.” She unzipped the cooler, extracted a sandwich, handed it to Austin and took one for herself.


Austin brought the submersible to a hovering stop. As he chewed on his lunch, savoring the crusty baguette and the creamy slab of Camembert cheese, he studied a chart of the lake.


“We’re here, alongside a natural shelf that roughly parallels the shoreline,” he said, running his finger along a wavy line. “This could have been exposed land centuries ago.”


“It goes along with my findings. A section of the Amber Route skirted the shore of Lac du Dormeur. When the waters rose, the traders found another route. Anything we find here would be very old.”


“What exactly are we looking for?”


“I’ll know it when I see it.”


“Good enough for me.”


“You’re far too trusting. I’ll elaborate. The caravans that plied the Amber Route needed places to stop for the night. I’m looking for the ruins of hospices, or settlements that may have grown up around a stopping place. Then I hope to find weapons that would flesh out the full trade story.”


They washed their lunch down with Evian water, and Austin’s fingers played over the controls. The battery-powered electrical mo­tors hummed, activating the twin lateral thrusters that the sphere rested on, and the submersible continued its exploration.


The SEAmagine SEAmobile was fifteen feet long, about the length of a midsized Boston whaler, and only seven feet wide, but it Was capable of carrying two people in one-atmosphere comfort to a depth of fifteen hundred feet for hours at a time. The vehicle had a range of twelve nautical miles and a maximum speed of 2.5 knots. Unlike most submersibles, which bobbed like a cork when they surfaced, the SEAmobile could be operated like a boat. It sat high in the water when it wasn’t submerged, giving the pilot clear visibility, and could cruise to a dive site or edge up to a dive platform.


The SEAmobile looked as if it had been assembled from spare parts cast off from a deep submergence lab. The crystal ball cockpit was fifty-four inches in diameter and it was perched on two flotation cylinders the size of water mains. Two protective metal frames shaped like the letter D flanked the sphere.


The vehicle was built to maintain positive buoyancy at all times and the tendency to float to the surface was countered by a midship-mounted vertical thruster. Because the SEAmobile was balanced to remain level constantly, at the surface or under it, the pilot didn’t have to fiddle around with pitch controls to keep it at a horizontal attitude.


Using a navigational acoustic Doppler instrument to keep track of their position, Austin guided the vehicle along the underwater es­carpment, a broad shelf that gradually sloped down into the deeper water. Following a basic search pattern, Austin ran a series of paral­lel lines like someone mowing a lawn. The sub’s four halogen lights illuminated the bottom, whose contours had been shaped by the ad­vance and retreat of glaciers.


The sub tracked back and forth for two hours and Austin’s eyes were starting to glaze from staring at the monotonous gray seascape. Skye was still entranced by the uniqueness of her surroundings. She leaned forward, chin on her hands, studying every square foot of lake bottom. In time, her persistence paid off.


“There!” She jabbed the air with her forefinger.


Austin slowed the vehicle to a crawl and squinted at a vague shape just beyond the range of the lights, then moved the submersible in for a closer look. The object lying on its side was a massive stone slab about twelve feet long and half as wide. The chisel marks visible along its edges suggested that it was not a natural rock formation. Other monoliths could be seen nearby, some standing upright; oth­ers topped with similar slabs like the Greek letter pi.


“Seems we took a wrong turn and ended up at Stonehenge,” Austin said.


“They’re burial monuments,” Skye said. “The arches mark the way to a tomb for funeral processions.”


Austin increased the power to the thrusters and the vehicle glided over six identical archways spaced thirty feet or so apart. Then the ground on either side of the archways began to rise, creating a shal­low valley. The natural hillsides morphed into high cyclopean walls constructed with massive hand-hewn blocks.


The narrow canyon ended abruptly in a sheer vertical wall. Cut into the wall was a rectangular opening that looked like the door on an elephant house. A lintel about thirty feet wide topped the door opening and above the huge slab was a smaller, triangular hole.


“Incredible,” Skye said in hushed tones. “It’s a tholos.”


“You’ve seen this before?”


“It’s a beehive tomb. There’s one in Mycenae called the ‘Treasury of Atreus.’


Mycenae. That’s Greek.”


“Yes, but the design is even older. The tombs go back to 2200 B.C. They were used for communal burials in Crete and other parts of the Aegean. Kurt, do you know what this means?” Her voice quivered with excitement. “We could establish trade links between the Aegean and Europe far earlier than anyone has dared to suggest. I’d give anything to get a close look at the tomb.”


“My standard price for an underwater tomb tour is an invitation to dinner.”


“You can get us inside?”


“Why not? We’ve got plenty of clearance on either side and above. If we go slowly—”


“The hell with slow! Dépêche-toi. Vite, vite!”


Austin laughed, and moved the submersible forward toward the dark opening. He was as eager as Skye, but he advanced with cau­tion. The lights were beginning to probe the interior when a voice came over the vehicle’s radio receiver.


“Kurt, this is support. Come in, please.”


The words being transmitted through the water had a metallic vi­brato, but Austin recognized the voice of the NUMA boat’s captain.


He brought the submersible to a hovering stop and picked up the microphone. “This is the SEAmobile. Do you read me?”


“Your voice is a little faint and scratchy, but I can hear you. Please tell Ms. Labelle that François wants to talk to her.”


François Balduc was the French observer NUMA had invited aboard as a courtesy to the French government. He was a pleasant, middle-aged bureaucrat who stayed out of the way except at dinner, when he assisted the cook in turning out some memorable feasts. Austin handed the mike to Skye.


There was a heated discussion in French, which ended when Skye passed the microphone back.


Merde!” she said with a frown. “We’ve got to go up.”


“Why? We still have plenty of air and power.”


“François got a call from a big shot in the French government. I’m needed immediately to identify some sort of artifact.”


“That doesn’t sound very urgent. Can it wait?”


“As far as I’m concerned it can until Napoleon returns from exile,” she said with a sigh, “but the government is subsidizing part of my research here, so I’m on call, so to speak. I’m sorry.”


Austin stared with narrowed eyes at the opening. “This tomb has been hidden from human view possibly for thousands of years. It’s not going anywhere.”


Skye nodded in agreement, although her heart clearly wasn’t in it.


They looked longingly at the mysterious doorway, and then Austin put the submersible in a U-turn. Once they were clear of the canyon, he reached for the vertical thruster control, and the sub­mersible began its ascent.


Moments later, the bubble cockpit popped out at the surface near the NUMA catamaran. He maneuvered the craft around behind the boat and drove it over a submerged platform between the twin hulls. The gate was raised and a winch hoisted the platform carrying the submersible up onto the deck.


François was awaiting their arrival, an anxious expression on his usually bland face. “I’m so sorry to interrupt your work, Mademoi­selle Skye. The cochon who called me was most insistent.”


She pecked him lightly on the cheek. “Don’t worry, François; it’s not your fault. Tell me what they want.”


He gestured toward the mountains. “They want you over there.”


“The glacier? Are you sure?”


He nodded his head vigorously. “Yes, yes, I asked the same thing. They were very clear that they needed your expertise. They found something in the ice. That’s all I know. The boat is waiting.”


Skye turned to Austin, an anxious look on her face. He antici­pated her words. “Don’t worry. I’ll wait until you get back before I dive on the tomb.”


She embraced Austin in a warm hug and kissed him on both cheeks.


“Merci, Kurt. I really appreciate this.” She shot him a smile that was only a few Btus short of seduction. “There’s a nice little bistro on the Left Bank. Good value for the money.” She laughed at his blank look. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten your dinner invitation? I accept.”


Before Austin could reply, Skye climbed down the ladder into the waiting powerboat, the outboard motor buzzed, and the shuttle headed toward shore. Austin was an attractive and charming man, and he had met many fascinating and beautiful women in his career. But as leader of NUMA’s Special Assignments Team, he was on call day or night. He was seldom home and his globe-hopping lifestyle was not conducive to a long-term relationship. Most encounters were all too brief.


Austin had been attracted to Skye from the start, and if he read the signals in her glance and smile and voice correctly, the feeling was mutual. He chuckled ruefully at the turnabout. Usually he was the one who went charging off when duty called, while his romantic in­terest of the moment cooled her heels. He gazed off at the boat mak­ing its way toward shore and wondered what sort of artifact could have created so much excitement. He almost wished that he had ac­companied Skye.


Within a few hours, he would be thanking the gods that he didn’t go along for the ride.


Some guys like to read Cussler because the gadgets and technology are always interesting (and in the Dirk Pitt series, the cars are fun). In Lost City, the technology won’t disappoint, and the formula Cussler uses continues to meet readers’ expectations for an entertaining diversion.


Steve Hopkins, December 20, 2004



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the January 2005 issue of Executive Times

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