Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Napoleon’s Pyramids by William Dietrich




(Highly Recommended)




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William Dietrich’s latest novel, Napoleon’s Pyramids, gives readers a dose of fine historical fiction. He creates a fictional protagonist, American Ethan Gage, and places him in late 18th century France, where he worked with Ben Franklin. The novel is packed with real historical figures, like Napoleon, and with selected historical events, including battles. Some writers of historical fiction make up too many facts to satisfy knowledgeable readers, and other writers try to match the dialogue of the historical setting, which can frustrate modern readers. Dietrich avoids those pitfalls in Napoleon’s Pyramids, and gives readers an adventure story that’s totally enjoyable. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 9, pp. 138-143:


It was 2 P.M., the hottest time of the day, when the French army began forming squares for the Battle of the Pyramids. It was more correctly the Battle of Imbaba, the closest town, but the pyramids on the horizon gave it a more romantic name in Talma’s dispatches. Imbaba’s melon fields were quickly overrun by soldiers seeking to quench their thirst before the coming combat. One of my memories is the bib of juice stain on their uniforms as the regiments and brigades formed ranks.

The pyramids were still a hazy fifteen miles away, but arresting in their perfect geometry. From that distance, they looked like the caps of colossal prisms, buried to their neck in the sands. We stirred at the sight of them, so fabled and so towering, the tallest structures that had ever been built. Vivant Denon was sketching furiously, trying to fit a panorama on a notepad and to catch the shimmer of the vault of air.

Imagine the magnificent panoply of the scene. On our left flank ran the Nile, shrunken before the floods that would soon start but nonetheless a majestic blue that reflected the brilliant sky Beside was the lush green of the irrigated fields and date palms that bordered it, a ribbon of Eden. To our right were the rolling dunes, like the frozen waves of an ocean. And finally in the distance were the pyramids, those mystical structures that seemed to belong to a different world, assembled by a civilization we could scarcely imagine, rising to their perfect peaks. The pyramids! I’d seen Masonic pictures of them, angu­lar and steep, topped with a glowing, all-seeing eye. Now they were real, squatter than I had imagined, wavering like a mirage.

Add to this the tens of thousands of uniformed men in crisp for­mations, the milling Mameluke cavalry, the lumbering camels, the braying donkeys, and the galloping French officers—already hoarse from shouting orders—and I was trapped in an environment so exotic that it seemed like I’d been transported to a dream. Talma was flying through sheets of paper as he wrote furiously, trying to record it all. Denon was muttering to himself that we all must pose before battle could be joined. “Wait. Wait!”

Arrayed against Bonaparte’s army was a glittering host that seemed two to three times our twenty-five thousand men, topped by a thunder­head of dust. Were the Mamelukes better generals, it is possible we’d have been overwhelmed. But the Arab army was foolishly divided by the mighty river. Their infantry this time Ottoman foot soldiers from Alba­nia, was placed too far back to be of immediate use. A fatal weakness of the Mamelukes was not only that they did not trust each other; they trusted no Ottoman branch but their own. Their artillery was ill situated on our far left flank. Because of such incompetence, the French soldiers were confident of the outcome. “Look how foolish they are!” the veter­ans reassured their comrades. “They don’t understand war!”

On the far bank, shimmering on the horizon, was Cairo itself, a city of a quarter-million people, spiked by its impossibly slim minarets. Would we all find fortune there? My mouth was dry, my mind dazed by sensation.

Once again the Arab army’s heart was the Mamelukes, mounted cavalry now ten thousand strong. Their horses were superb Arabians and richly harnessed, their riders a kaleidoscope of robes and silks, their turbans topped with egret and peacock feathers, and their helmets gilded with gold. They were armed with a museum’s worth of beautiful and dated weapons. Old muskets were inlaid with jewels and mother­of-pearl. Scimitars, lances, spears, battle axes, maces, and daggers all glinted in the sun. More muskets and pistols were holstered on their saddles or thrust in their sashes, and each Mameluke was trailed by two or three servants on foot carrying additional firearms and ammunition. These slaves would sprint forward to relay weapons so the Mamelukes wouldn’t have to pause to reload. The warriors’ horses pranced and snorted like circus steeds, heads rearing in impatience for the coming charge. No army had withstood them for five hundred years.

Prowling the outskirts of the Egyptian formations were the white-robed Bedouin on their camels, masked like bandits and circling like wolves. These waited to descend on our ranks to kill and plunder when we broke under the penultimate Mameluke charge. Our own wolf, Bin Sadr, was hunting them even as they hunted us. Dressed in black, his cutthroats lurked on the lip of the dunes and hoped not only to ambush Bedouin, but to strip dead Mamelukes of booty before French soldiers could get to them.

The Egyptians had strapped small cannon on the backs of camels. The animals brayed and snorted and trotted this way and that under the shouted commands of their anxious trainers, so unsteady that the aim would prove worthless. The river was once more thronged with the lateen-rigged feluccas of the Muslim fleet, crammed with hooting sailors. Again we heard the clamor of drums, horns, bugles, and tam­bourines, and a forest of flags, banners, and pennants fluttered above their assembly like a vast carnival. The French bands struck up as well, as the European infantry filed into position with stolid efficiency from long-practiced drill, priming their weapons and fixing bayonets. The sun sparkled on every deadly point. Regimental banners bore stream­ers of past victories. Drums thundered to communicate commands.

The air was an oven, heating our lungs. Water seemed to evaporate before it could travel from lips to throat. A hot wind was coming up out of the desert to the west, and the sky was an ominous brown in that direction.

By this time most of the scientists and engineers had caught up with the army—even Monge and Berthollet had come ashore—but our role in the coming showdown had not been specified. Now Gen­eral Dumas, looking even more gigantic on a huge brown charger, came galloping by to roar a fresh command.

“Donkeys, scholars, and women to the squares! Take your place inside, you useless asses!”

I have seldom heard more comforting words.

Astiza, Talma, and I followed a herd of scientists, French women, and livestock into an infantry square commanded by General Louis-Antoine Desaix. He was perhaps the army’s ablest soldier, the same age as Napoleon at twenty-nine, and one inch shorter, even, than our little corporal. Unlike the other generals, he was as devoted to his commander as a loyal hound. Homely, disfigured by a saber cut, and shy of women, he seemed happiest when sleeping between the wheels of a field piece. Now he formed his troops in such a robust square, ten soldiers deep facing in four directions, that entering was like taking refuge in a small fort made up entirely of human beings. I loaded my rifle again and looked out at Egypt from behind this formidable bar­rier of broad shoulders, high cockaded hats, and ready muskets. Mounted officers, dismounted scientists, and chattering women milled in the interior space, all of us nervous and hot. Field cannon were placed at each of the square’s outside corners, the artillerymen relying on infantry support to keep from being overrun.

“By Moses and Jupiter, I’ve never seen such splendor,” I muttered. “No wonder Bonaparte likes war.”

“Imagine if Egypt was your home and you were looking at these French divisions,” Astiza replied quietly. “Imagine facing invasion.”

“It will bring better times, I hope.” Impulsively, I took and squeezed her hand. “Egypt is desperately poor, Astiza.”

Surprisingly, she did not pull away. “Yes, it is.”

Once more the army musicians struck up the “Marseillaise,” the music helping steady everyone’s nerves. Then Napoleon rode by our square with his immediate staff, his steed black, his hat plumed, and his gray eyes like chips of ice. I climbed on a caisson—a two-wheeled ammunition wagon—to hear him. Word of his wife’s infidelities had left no obvious mark, save furious concentration. Now he pointed dra­matically at the pyramids, their geometric purity wavering in the heat as if seen through water. “Soldiers of France!” he cried. “Forty cen­turies look down upon you!”

The cheer was eruptive. As much as the common foot soldier com­plained about Bonaparte between battles, they welded to him like lovers in a fight. He knew them, knew how they thought and bellyached and breathed, and knew how to ask them the impossible for a bit of ribbon, a mention in a dispatch, or a promotion to an elite unit.

Then the general leaned closer to Desaix with quieter words that some of us could hear but which were not meant as an address to the army. “No mercy.”

I felt a sudden chill.

Murad Bey, once more the commander of the Arab army in our front, saw that Napoleon intended to march his squares forward to bludgeon through the Arab center, splitting the Mameluke forces so they could be destroyed piecemeal. While the Egyptian ruler had no grasp of European tactics, he had the common sense to try to forestall whatever the French intended by attacking first. He raised his lance, and with their eerie, ululating cry, the Mameluke cavalry once again charged. These slave warriors had been invincible for centuries, and the ruling caste simply could not believe that technology was bringing its reign to an end. This was a much larger attack than any we had yet faced, and so many horses thundered forward that I literally could feel the quaking of the ground beneath the caisson I had mounted.

The infantry waited with nervous confidence, knowing by now that the Mamelukes had neither the artillery nor the musket discipline to prevail against the French formations. Still, the enemy’s approach was furious as an avalanche. All of us tensed. The ground shook, sand and dust erupted at the breast of their line like oncoming surf, and lances, spears, and rifle muzzles were brandished like fields of shaking wheat. I felt a little reckless and giddy up on my perch, looking over the heads of the ranks before me, Astiza and Talma looking up at me as if I were crazy, but I hadn’t seen a Mameluke weapon yet that I felt had much chance of hitting me at any range. I raised my own rifle and waited, watching the enemy banners ripple.

Nearer and nearer they came, the rumbling growing in volume, the Mamelukes sounding their high, wavering cry, the French whispering not a word. The open ground between us was being swallowed. Were we ever going to fire? I swear I could pick out the bright colors of the enemy’s unexpected Caucasian eyes, the grimace of their teeth, the veins of their hands, and I became impatient. Finally, without conscious decision, I squeezed my trigger, my gun kicked, and one of the enemy warriors pitched backward, disappearing in the stampede.

It was as if my shot were the signal to commence. Desaix cried out and the front of the French erupted in the familiar sheet of flame. In an instant I was deaf and the attacking cavalry went down in a crash­ing wave of torn bodies, screaming horses, and thrashing hooves. Smoke and dust rolled over us. Then another volley from the rank behind, and another, and then another. Somewhere the field guns boomed and scythes of grapeshot whickered out. It was a storm of lead and iron. Even those Mamelukes not hit were colliding and cata­pulting over the mounts of their comrades. A furious charge had been churned into havoc in an instant, just yards from the first French bay­onets. So close were the fallen enemy that some were hit by the burn­ing wadding from the European muzzles. Tiny fires started on the clothes of the dead and wounded. I loaded and fired again too, to what effect I couldn’t tell. We were wreathed in smoke.

The survivors wheeled away to regroup while Napoleon’s soldiers swiftly and mechanically reloaded, every motion practiced hundreds of times. A few of the French had fallen from Mameluke fire and these were dragged backward into the middle of our square as the rank awkwardly reformed, sergeants beating at slackers to force them to duty It was like a sea creature growing another arm, impervious to fatal damage.

The Mamelukes charged again, this time trying to penetrate the side and rear ranks of our infantry square.


I’m no expert of this time period in history, but Napoleon’s actions seemed consistent with the facts, and his personality as it emerges in this novel also seemed to match the historical record. Napoleon’s Pyramids is not meant to be taken so seriously that it is without flaw, but it provides hours of adventurous entertainment. In the spirit of meeting those expectations, this book is highly recommended.  


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

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