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Book Review: The Dakota Cipher by William Dietrich

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The Dakota Cipher by William Dietrich continues the adventures of Ethan Gage. An American expatriate, student of Ben Franklin, and sometimes-comrade of Napoleon, Ethan has survived a perilous adventure in the Middle East, and a perilous return to France, to find himself again in Napoleon’s good graces. After a few heroics, a few misadventures, and a dalliance with the emperor’s sister, Pauline, Ethan finds himself headed back to his home country, accompanied by Magnus Bloodhammer, a Norwegian in search of Thor’s hammer.

Ethan returns to America as something of a hero, or at the very least a curiosity, thanks to his adventures in Egypt and heroics at the battle of Acre. Unfortunately, he has also accumulated a list of enemies along the way, thanks to his propensity to change sides when fortune and his personal safety dictate such. Serving as a liaison from Napoleon, he and Bloodhammer gain an audience with newly-elected president Thomas Jefferson. Despite his reluctance to venture into the dangerous frontier Ethan accompanies Magnus on his search, in part at Napoleon’s behest, and in part at Jefferson’s.

Dietrich paints a vivid picture of the oft-romanticized American frontier, emphasizing not only its beauty, but its bleakness, and its danger. He expertly weaves historical figures such as Meriwether Lewis, Tecumseh, and Simon Girty, with skillfully-crafted characters like temptress and crack-shot Aurora Somerset and the affable Pierre Radisson. The plot incorporates Norse legend, Templar tradition, the famed and controversial runestones that have been discovered in parts of the American Midwest, and Ethan’s old enemies, the Egyptian snake cult.

Though the story stands on its own as a thoroughly entertaining adventure, Ethan Gage truly shines. Dietrich has avoided the pitfall common to the genre of creating a character that is too perfect, heroic, and noble. Ethan is a character of contradictions: he easily slips into a woman’s good graces, but can’t hold on to a woman to save his life. He is unlucky in that he is constantly finding himself in perilous situations, many of his own creation, but usually lucky or resourceful enough to find his way out. He is bright, but makes foolish decisions. He is a character with whom the imaginative reader can easily identify.

Overall, The Dakota Cipher is a worthy follow-up to Napoleon’s Pyramids and The Rosetta Key. Highly recommended!

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