The Emerald Storm, by William Dietrich
It’s 1803, and Napoleon’s armies stand poised for another European war. Thus begins William Dietrich’s The Emerald Storm, the fifth part of his Ethan Gage Adventures series. Although the novel suffers from its share of problems, it’s still an absorbing tale packed with tension and history.
As the rest of Europe prepares for war, Ethan Gage, a treasure-hunting scoundrel and reluctant agent for both Britain and France, simply wishes to retire with his family after his most recent escapade. His plans are fouled in Paris, when Leon Martel, a rogue French agent, attacks the Gage family and kidnaps Ethan’s young son, Horus, demanding that Ethan find a lost treasure in exchange for his child. Ethan and his wife, Astiza, are saved from near-death by the British, who also recruit them to track down the treasure and prevent it from falling into French hands. The duo’s quest to retrieve their son first takes them to a mountaintop fortress in France before they set sail for the Caribbean to find the treasure, confront Martel, and rescue Horus; however, things quickly become more complicated when they arrive on the isle of Saint-Domingue, embroiled in a slave revolt.
Dietrich’s novel succeeds in two major areas. First, characters often exchange witty dialogue, which is a fun touch. Ethan is supposed to be a quick-witted scoundrel, and it shows through in his speech. Many of the other characters showcase their cleverness as well, making them feel more like actual people. Second, the characters frequently end up in tight situations, which increases the tension in the plot. Dietrich does well here because the tight spots are believable, in some cases being historic events that the characters just happen to stumble into. The book is a real page-turner as a result, with readers wanting to read more so they can see how Ethan and Astiza escape each new situation.
Unfortunately, Ethan’s character becomes something of an issue as the plot progresses. In previous installations of the series, he’s a greedy rogue and a womanizer, but in The Emerald Storm, he tries to reform and become a decent family man. Yet he usually doesn’t seem to try that hard, and he’s something of a dislikeable character as a result. At the same time, the reader is encouraged to feel sympathy for him, since he experiences so many trials as he tries to save his son. This results in readers (if they’re like me) feeling ambivalent about Ethan, wondering if they like him enough to want him to be happily reunited with his family and consequently not caring as much as they could about the struggle to rescue Horus. Placing a reader in that state of mind is a cardinal sin of fiction writing, and regrettably, it’s present in this book.
Dietrich also courts another fiction sin, walking a fine line between explaining too much and explaining just enough. This novel is part of a series, so Dietrich streamlines a summary of previous events into the plot for the benefit of new readers. That works well, but there are other times where characters, historical and fictional, receive lengthy descriptions about their real-world accomplishments or their prior adventures with Ethan. While they’re helpful, they’re clunky and frequently slow the plot.
Other issues further hinder the plot and cause some confusion. Notably, some chapters suffer from a disjointed arrangement. For example, chapter one begins with Ethan scaling the wall of a French mountaintop fortress, chapters two through nine backtrack to explain how he got there, and chapter ten finally returns to the situation at the fortress. While it’s important to grab the reader’s attention immediately (and a literal cliffhanger is a good way to do so), The Emerald Storm handles the technique poorly; by the time it returns to the fort in chapter ten, readers have essentially forgotten about Ethan scaling its walls. Other chapters display similar problems, beginning with Ethan doing something, then spending much of the chapter explaining how he got there before finally returning to it at the chapter’s end.
Further confusion stems from clumsy instances of dialogue. There are times where three or more characters share a conversation and there is no indication of who is speaking. Readers are forced to struggle to find out who said what, halting plot progression and, at times, allowing them to miss interesting character development.
Still, The Emerald Storm provides a fun reading experience. Readers will find the novel an enjoyable story (even if they struggle with parts of it), although there are definitely stylistic snarls along the way. Dietrich’s hasn’t created a great work of historical fiction, yet he makes it entertaining, which certainly counts for something.
The Emerald Storm: An Ethan Gage Adventure
By William Dietrich
384 pp. Harper Paperbacks, reprinted March 2013. $14.99