The Emerald Storm, by William Dietrich

The Emerald Storm

Sometimes I think that I have pretty eclectic taste in books, that I read a wide range of both fiction and nonfiction. Other times I think just the opposite, that I tend to repeat myself in my reading, going over the same ground multiple times. Certainly it’s not uncommon for me to read multiple books by the same author. In terms of subject matter, there’s a decent amount of variety, but if you use fairly broad categories you could probably fit all or almost all of the books I read into five or ten such categories (e.g., pseudoscience and skepticism, leftist political and social commentary, Gandhi and nonviolence, the classic novels everyone is supposed to read, and a few others).

I’m most likely to read a book outside my usual range when the choice isn’t entirely up to me, like if I read something because it’s assigned in some class (I finished college decades ago, but over the years since then I’ve occasionally taken a class or two), I’m in a book club that chooses it, or I get it as a gift.

The Emerald Storm is an example of that last type—a book I received as a gift that I almost certainly would not have considered reading on my own. It’s a historical adventure novel—one of a series of books featuring swashbuckler Ethan Gage and his family—which is a genre I have little or no familiarity with.

The novel is written in the first person, from Gage’s perspective. Gage has a wise-cracking, cynical style. He is constantly bouncing from one thrillingly dangerous encounter to the next, but he paints himself as a reluctant adventurer, wanting nothing so much as to settle down with his wife and toddler son and live a “normal” life. He’s sort of a slyly self-deprecating version of the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World.”

The books in the series connect to each other, but they’re written so that they can each stand alone as well. Whatever background from the prior books is particularly important to know is recapped by Gage as narrator. So even though I had never read any other Ethan Gage books, I had no trouble following the story in this one.

The series takes place in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Dietrich clearly delights in making his stories as historically realistic as they can be, bearing in mind that these Indiana Jones-type adventures can never actually be very realistic. But he has his hero Gage interact with plenty of famous historical figures, such as Napoleon, and places him at the center of various major historical events, such as the Louisiana Purchase and the Haitian Revolution. He also has an interest in science and technology, and so includes in his stories various inventions and devices that would have been cutting edge at the time, like rudimentary submarines and gliders. Those geeky elements seem to be quite well done. I think Dietrich has done his homework in creating stories that while being highly unlikely are still consistent with the historical facts.

Gage is an American, but he allies himself with the British, the French, the Haitians, or whoever else it would be advantageous to be allied with at any given time, though never in a way that involves his directly betraying or fighting against the United States.

I won’t go into the specifics of the plot of The Emerald Storm, but in broad terms it’s about Gage deftly moving from one faction to another and from one continent to another in an effort to recover his young son, who is taken hostage early in the book.

Gage has nothing but constant praise for his Egyptian wife. In some ways that smacks of political correctness—“strong” female characters who can do no wrong—but it’s so exaggerated as to come across more like “putting a woman on a pedestal”-style idealizing of one’s mate. The latter impression is strengthened by the fact that while as narrator he references many of her various perfections, none get more emphasis than her apparently superhuman exotic beauty.

The black characters are generally also portrayed in a politically correct 21st century manner.

The whole time I was reading this book I kept picturing it as a movie. I looked up the author’s website later and found that, not surprisingly, he’s actively interested in his Ethan Gage adventures being translated to film, though as far as I know that’s not in the works. But it seems like the kind of thing that could be successful, in the genre of The Pirates of the Caribbean or the aforementioned Indiana Jones movies.

I would think these books—and any movie eventually made from them—would work for both adults and younger readers. I wouldn’t say they’re dumbed down, but they’re written in a straightforward enough manner, and with sufficient action, to be accessible and interesting to young people.

The Emerald Storm is the kind of book you read for pleasure, not for anything deeper. I tried to appreciate it on that level, to lose myself in the story and Gage’s various adventures. To a modest degree I was able to do so, but not the way a reader who truly loves this genre of literature could.

Other than maybe an occasional humor book, I guess I don’t read much that’s just for pleasure, and I’m OK with that. I tend to read things I can learn from, and things that in some way challenge me and provoke me to think about important issues. Sometimes such books can be a slog, but at least as often I genuinely enjoy them. So I really don’t need to take a break from more “serious” books to enjoy reading; plenty of my typical books aren’t just “good for me” in some sense but are pleasurable as well.

I liked The Emerald Storm somewhat, but I can’t say it motivated me to further explore this genre. It’s escapist literature, and I’m not particularly desirous of escaping from my usual reading.


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