Friday, August 7, 2009

You do NOT want to play Trivial Pursuit with these two!

Spartan Gold
by Clive Cussler & Grant Blackwood

"Fortune favors the bold." That's the oft-quoted motto of Sam and Remi Fargo, the husband and wife protagonists of Clive Cussler's latest co-authored offering. Spartan Gold is the first book in a new series penned by Grant Blackwood. The Fargos are "treasure hunters and adventurers." Sam's background is mechanical engineering and Remi's is in anthropology and history, but both appear to be polymaths. In their line of work, they have ample opportunity to put their numerous skills to good use.

As the novel opens, they're hip deep in the muck of a Maryland swamp. They're looking for buried treasure, but what they find is something altogether unexpected. It's a Nazi-era German mini-sub very, very far from where one would expect to find such a thing. An attempt to get the scoop on local rumors of such an anomaly is aborted by their source's kidnapping right before their eyes. After the Fargos free their friend from the professional operative interrogating him about a shard of wine bottle he found in the Pocomoke, the plot really takes off.

It comes as no surprise when the Fargos' crack research team (at their home base in La Jolla) links the wine bottles to "Napoleon's Lost Cellar," and then links these 12 wine bottles, secreted around the world, to a major hidden treasure. This is because we'd seen the great man make his (unseen) discovery of ancient treasure in the novel's prologue. It is this unknown treasure that Sam and Remi are seeking, but they've got competition in the form of a ruthless Ukrainian crime boss and his henchmen. Unlike the Fargos, Hadeon Bondaruk knows exactly what they're seeking and he will stop at nothing to possess it. So begins a cat and mouse chase across the globe. It's an epic scavenger hunt with a high stakes outcome. Along the way, there's breath-taking scenery and a few history lessons leading up to the inevitable showdown between the good guys and the bad guys.

It's a okay start, as these things go. The characters are more archetypes than flesh and blood people. But, hey, it's a series; there's time for character development later. There are some fun supporting characters, most notably Yvette Fornier-Desmarais. I expect we'll see more of her. Sadly, I can't say the same of their sidekick researcher, Selma. She's a cardboard cutout masquerading as a character. For now, Sam and Remi display that typical Cusslerian insouciance in the face of danger, and snap off witty banter whenever possible. It's easy to joke about their arcane knowledge. (The rugs of Yoruk nomads? Really?) And an early reference to Henri Archambault elicits the response, "the Henri Archambault?" Why, yes, Napoleon Bonaparte's chief enologist. He's practically a household name.

Still, despite their ridiculous knowledge base, the Fargos are refreshingly fallible. This is probably my favorite thing about the novel. They're chasing cryptic clues. They have to work really hard to solve them. Sometimes they even have to sleep on it. The puzzle solving is depicted unusually realistically. (I mean, in those National Treasure films, riddles are solved in a matter of seconds.) Sam and Remi make other mistakes, too. They get lost occasionally. They screw up. What can I say? Imperfect protagonists are infinitely more interesting in my book.

The story is light, very light, and fast-paced for the most part--thought my interest did flag a bit in the middle. But then our heroes took the action into the proverbial lion's den, and that picked things up straight through the ending. By and large the writing is fine, though there are some quirky redundancies to the text.

Fans of Cussler's signature mix of history and adventure will likely give this one a thumbs up. It's nothing to write home about, but Grant Blackwood is off to a respectable start.

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