The Last Ember
by Daniel Levin
Daniel Levin's debut novel is a mixed bag. It has a lot of problems, but nonetheless, I see enough promise in this first novel to encourage me that there will be better things to come.
The Last Ember opens with attorney Jonathan Marcus arriving rather abruptly in Rome. Given his background in archeology and classics, he's been summoned by the firm to consult on a case concerning an artifact of questionable provenance. Jonathan hasn't been back to Italy since he was drummed out of the American Academy following a tragic incident. Suddenly his past is coming back to haunt him, as it is one of his former friends and classmates opposite him on the witness stand.
Jonathan is a talented lawyer and performs his job well, albeit with reservations. He has found a clue in the disputed artifact, something no one else seems to have discovered. Unable to let sleeping dogs lie, Jonathan starts down a path that leads him right to his recent legal adversary, Dr. Emili Travia. Soon the two realize they are on the same side as they hunt down clues to the Tabernacle Menorah, the eight-foot, solid gold menorah from King Herod's court, lost for millennia.
All such chases have obstacles, and in The Last Ember baddies abound. Unfortunately, the revelations of their identities, both named and unnamed, were ridiculously anticlimatic. I mean, if you can't figure out the identity of "Salah-al-din" before the reveal, I'll, I'll... revoke your library card! A lot of the "surprises" were well telegraphed ahead of time. Another problem with the novel is that Levin has succumbed to some very convenient plotting. Need to find a person with a highly specialized skill set? One of the protagonists knows just the person! Need to escape the country as a fugitive? I've already got a flight lined up! The two protagonists never make a misstep as they untangle clues that have defied scholars and treasure hunters for centuries--but that's good, because the bad guys and the carabinieri are just as adept at solving ancient puzzles and are hot on their trail.
What does Levin get right? Well, I, for one, really liked the way he blended the Jewish and Christian elements of this tale in interesting ways. It's unfortunate that the Muslims are the villains (though by no means are all of the Muslim characters villainous), but that's the reality of the stories being told at this point in our history. (And that's not a spoiler, BTW.) Had the Catholic Church been the bad guys, that would have been equally cliched. If it had been the Jews, well, lets not go there.
Quite possibly my favorite thing about this novel was the way he really brought Rome and Jerusalem to life. Levin did an excellent job when describing the ubiquitous ruins found in both places, and the way they blend in with contemporary life. I was fascinated with how ancient civilizations literally built right on top of the ruins of what came before, and the underground sequences were marvelously atmospheric!
I think Levin does a really nice job with the secondary characters, with the unfortunate side effict of having the two protagonists appear to be somewhat bland. His prose is fine, and he's very good with pacing. It's not a short book, but Levin keeps the pages turning speedily. And overall, it's a fun story he's telling. There's a lot of interesting history and scholarship. Levin is also making a serious comment on historic revisionism. I can be a very critical reader, but I can't deny that there was fun to be had reading this novel. Despite a flawed debut, I'll be willing to check out whatever Levin comes up with next. I think he has real potential.