Archeology as arena of struggle for the past and the future is brought alive as it hasn’t been in a long time in this smart thriller that takes on Biblical holy objects, secret plots of the prisoners of ancient Rome, and those who would today contemplate acts of archaeological terrorism, fashioning these elements into an engrossing and highly readable read filled with mystery, suspense and thrills.
Fans of Dan Brown’s last religious-themed mega-thriller will find plenty of goodies in the pages of this book, brimming with not just action and ancient mysteries but complex modern day politics surrounding archeology of the Temple Mount.
Jonathan Marcus, a young American lawyer and Rome Prize winner, is summoned by his firm to its Rome offices to examine fragments of an ancient marble map. The pieces belong to a mysterious client accused of stealing them, and Jonathan’s job is to examine them in order to help create a defense. But what at first seems nothing more than just another case soon takes an entirely different turn when Jonathan discovers a secret steganographic message in one of the pieces, visible only under the illumination of light.
The first to see this message since the ancient times, Jonathan becomes enthralled by it for it seems to bear out his own theory, proposed while a fellow at the American Academy in Rome, about the Josephus and the location of ancient Jerusalem’s most prized object, the Temple Menorah. Despite being told to forget about history and its hidden truths —- the truth is not his client, Jonathan is reminded —- Jonathan’s interest in the truth is unquenchable, and he launches on a quest to find the greatest secret of the ancient world.
Jonathan finds that the message turns out to be a thread of the complex tapestry of a plot concocted by the reviled Flavius Josephus, the man who apparently betrayed Jerusalem to Titus, to hide the location of the Temple Menorah.
The more Jonathan is absorbed in the ancient riddle, the closer he comes to unraveling the location of this 2000 year old artifact, and the deeper he descends into danger as a corrupt Italian cop and friends whose loyalty is actually in question close in on him.
Dark forces swirl around him, for Marcus is not alone in his quest to discover the location of the last ember. Another, shadowy figure called Sheik Salah ad-Din — using the cover of the Waqf Authority, the Muslim organization which for hundreds of years has been tending the integrity of the Temple Mount — has the same goal, but his ultimate plan is entirely different: like the Emperor Titus, he aims to destroy the menorah in an attempt to erase the ancient history of Israel and destroy the Jewish People.
This is where Levin’s story becomes more than just another action thriller. As Levin reveals for the reader a largely unknown vista of the very contentious politics of the archeology of the Temple Mount, he reveals the struggle between Israel and the Muslim authorities regarding archaeological activity in the Temple Mount area. In a place where land is identity and identity destiny, at stake in the struggle over the Temple Mount archaeological activity is nothing less than the future of a people, for if the past can be erased, so can the future claims of Israel to land and to existence. In this complex calculus, made highly readable by Levin’s fiction, by destroying the Temple Menorah, one destroys a people. Rarely does a thriller touch on such a real-world matter with similar realism.
Though Levin is writing with a remarkable assurance and vision in this his first book, there are some flaws. One that comes to mind is the “protected” treasure sequence wherein the unworthy bad guy is harmed when he tries to touch the treasure. Despite this cliché, Levin manages to pull off an emotionally satisfying mystical experience as a spiritually broken character comes face to face with the power of the Eternal embodied in the menorah’s light.
The Last Ember is a compelling and highly imaginative blend of ancient secrets and thrilling action adventure spanning hidden subterranean locations in the modern city of Rome, its Jewish ghetto, and Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.