Monday, May 10, 2010

A River in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters

In 1909, Amelia Peabody Emerson was at home with her husband, Radcliffe Emerson. Their son, Ramses, was in the Holy Land, working on a dig at Samaria, mainly to build his credibility as an Archaeologist with a man other than his father, and also to get experience working with someone other than his father.

Amelia is missing her son, but her husband's opinion of the Old Testament Bible stories would alarm many Christians. He labels them as a bunch of hooey that isn't borne out by actual archaeology. But the reason he's been reading the Bible is that two men have approached him, one who claims to be Solomon reborn and to know where the lost temple is, and therefore the Ark of the Covenant.

Emerson is opposed to the entire idea. After all, all three faiths get mighty antsy if anyone even considers digging in Jerusalem and triply so near the Dome of the Rock, where Panagopolous claims the Ark is. Panagopolous also bursts into a spate of gibberish in three languages, including Greek, Latin and Hebrew, but Emerson, who understands them all, knows they are gibberish.

Panagopolous's friend, George Morley, wants Emerson's help to go to Jerusalem and find the Ark, but Emerson turns him down flat. He doesn't think that Morley will find anything. But later, when he's summoned to the British Government offices because of the government's suspicion that Panagopolous is a spy for the Prussian Government, but Emerson believes he's nothing of the sort. In the end, they convince Radcliffe and Amelia to go to the Holy Land, and along with them, they take Nefret, and David, the grandson of Daoud, a man who had worked with Emerson for years before his death, and had come to be a sort of second-in-command.

Meanwhile, in the Holy Land, Ramses has been attacked twice, but the attacks were very weak tea, as attacks go. Once a rock was thrown at him, but not very hard. Of course, Ramses doesn't know if someone is targeting him specificially, or someone in his expedition. Then, the dig is visited by Madame Von Eine, and Reisner, the head of the dig, asks Ramses to show her around.

But something about the way she acts sets off alarm bells in Ramses mind, even though he can't point out anything specific, and her relationship with her Turkish bodyguards also seems rather... iffy. He tries to keep a watch on her campsite, but because of the Turkish guards who patrol around it, he can't get close enough to see what is really going on. Then, one night, he is approached by a man in the darkness who speaks to him, a British secret agent keeping watch on Madame Von Eine. He thinks she may be involved with the German secret service, and are trailing her to find out. She was also in a city where there was an antiquities theft, and passed through, but the agent doesn't know if she had anything to do with that for sure.

After Ramses leaves to go back to the dig, he has a fairly quiet night, but the next morning, the agent's dead body is not far from where Madame Von Eine's camp *used* to be, and of course, she and her men are long gone. Ramses, who has received word that his parents are coming to meet him in Jerusalem, leaves the dig and attempts to follow Madame Von Eine to figure out exactly what she is up to. But before he can find out much of anything, he's discovered by her main Turkish bodyguard, kidnapped and taken along with them. But what is Madame Von Eine doing in Palestine, and who is really in charge in her party? Is she a fellow captive, leader or follower? Ramses' safety may hinge on him figuring it out quickly, for even though he's been assured that his life is not in danger, he isn't entirely certain it's the truth.

Back in Jerusalem, Amelia and her family are being passed from Hostel to Hostel by the government, and with them is Mr. Panagopolous, who Emerson is convinced is a conman, and whom Nefret has taken under her wing. A message, which Ramses has been forced to write by his captors, diverts them for now, but can Emerson stop Morley from his mad plan to find the Ark under the Dome of the Rock? Who *is* Plato Panagopolous really? A simple idiot. a con-man, or a spy? And when Ramses's family becomes aware he is missing, can they retrieve their captured son before he perishes in the unforgiving landscape of the Holy Land?

I was rather surprised that this book wasn't a sequel to the book before, but a prequel, coming in time between two earlier books. Still, It was nice to see classic Amelia, and her family, and so out of their depth in a country where they have not worked before. But they aren't completely on their own. Even though Emerson hasn't worked in Palestine (Israel, of course, didn't come into being until after 1948), the "Father of Curses" does know some people in the area, and people seem to know of his reputation, even here.

I did kind of like the idea of a prequel story. But putting it so early into the continuity of the stories (well, relatively early) also brings up a conundrum of why the events here aren't spoken of in later books that occur after this in continuity, but of course, were written before this book came out. It's always a problem for an author when setting later books earlier in continuity, of how to reconcile the new "history" to the writings in books written before this one was conceived.

I also rather admit that while I love Amelia Emerson and her husband, I also want to see books where Ramses, Nefret, David and Lia finally come into their own as main characters. But Peters is facing a time crunch, because soon World War I will happen, and a lot of Egyptian and Holy Land Archaeology conditions will change. So far, she's skillfully avoided the problem by having Emerson be an early champion of modern-style archaeology, but she won't be able to put it off forever if she continues writing sequels as opposed to interspersed Prequel-Sequels.

This was an interesting book that I liked a lot. I like Amelia and her family, but I am really ready to read about Ramses and Nefret being the main characters while Radcliffe and Amelia take supporting roles. They deserve to become advisors and side characters to their own children at this point. It's a natural progression for the series, and something I'd like to see. Recommended.

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