Well, after reading “Zero Hour” (2013), I was eager to read another thriller novel by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown. And, in my small collection of second-hand Clive Cussler books, the only other one I had was one called “The Pharaoh’s Secret”.
Interestingly, despite the slightly more understated cover art, this book is actually newer than “Zero Hour” – being published two years later in 2015. Still, given how much better I had found “Zero Hour” to be than the older Clive Cussler novel I’d read beforehand, I had high expectations for “The Pharaoh’s Secret”.
So, let’s take a look at “The Pharaoh’s Secret”. Needless to say, this review will contain some moderate SPOILERS.
The novel begins in Ancient Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. In the dead of night, a group of travellers sneak towards Abydos, the forbidden city of the dead. A mysterious plague has been spreading through the land and the travellers believe that the temple of Osiris may hold salvation. When they arrive, one of the travellers is greeted by a terrifying vision of Osiris who tells him that the plague victims will be saved if he agrees to poison Akhenaten as punishment for turning his back on the old gods.
Then we flash forward to 18th century Egypt. Napoleon’s ships are getting a sound thrashing from Nelson’s fleet. During the chaos, a French scholar called Emile D’Campion is trying to smuggle several mysterious crates out of Egypt. After narrowly escaping from one embattled ship with the crates, D’Campion finds himself on Admiral Villeneuve’s ship. Sensing that the battle will not go in their favour, the admiral retreats back to France…
After this, we flash forward to 2015. A smuggling ship called the M.V. Torino is travelling through the seas near Malta. However, the ship’s captain soon notices another vessel following them. The crew quickly arm themselves as several speedboats of gunmen begin to board the Torino. After the battle that follows, the ship runs aground beside the Italian island of Lampedusa, before exploding spectacularly. An ominous chemical mist begins to spread from the gutted vessel, quickly engulfing the island….
Some time later, Kurt Austin (a high-ranking member of a US maritime agency called “NUMA”) is conducting an archaeological dive on a Roman-era ship with his buddy Joe Zavala when they get a mysterious distress call from Lampedusa…..
One of the first things that I’ll say about this novel is that it is as gripping as you would expect 🙂 Like with “Zero Hour”, it is a novel that begs to be binge-read.
However, it sets itself apart from “Zero Hour” in several interesting ways. If “Zero Hour” was like an over-the-top 1990s action movie, then “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is more like a “James Bond” or “Mission: Impossible” film…. with maybe a hint of TV shows like “The A-Team”, “24” and “Burn Notice” too.
In other words, the drama is a little bit more topical, there’s slightly more of an emphasis on suspense and the action scenes are kept at least vaguely “realistic”. Still, this works in the story’s favour.
The main characters often find themselves in suspenseful situations where they have to think on their feet. This emphasis on thinking and ingenuity really helps to keep the story gripping (since the characters can’t just mindlessly shoot their way out of literally every situation).
But, this isn’t to say that “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is bereft of spectacular car chases, gunfights etc…. Yes, there aren’t as many of these as there were in “Zero Hour”, but this just serves to make them more spectacular by contrast. Whether it’s the ferocious battle for the M.V. Torino, a dramatic chase in Malta, a daring secret mission in Cairo etc… there’s still a fair amount of thrilling action here.
Plus, although the story includes some serious topical drama (revolving around the after-effects of the Arab Spring), there’s a reasonable amount of humour too. Not only are there a few brilliantly witty dialogue exchanges, but there are also a few moments of unintentional comedy too. Basically, some of the main villain’s henchmen have hilariously melodramatic code-names like “Talon”, “Shadow” and “Scorpion”. Plus, the main villain has a crocodile pit too. A crocodile pit! Seriously, this is gloriously cheesy!
The novel’s characters are reasonably good too, if somewhat stylised. Kurt’s team is a good mixture of daring heroes and clever scientists. Plus, the novel’s main villain is a pretty classic “villain” character, who is cartoonishly evil in the best possible way. Interestingly though, several of his henchmen get some character development too – with “Scorpion” actually having a bit of an interesting backstory.
Plus, the novel’s new supporting character – Dr. Renata Ambrosini – is kind of interesting. Initially, she’s a typical scientist/doctor character who is a bit of a pacifist. However, by the end of the novel, she’s a badass scuba-diving, pistol-shooting, car chasing etc.. action heroine character. But, since this novel is basically a Hollywood action/thriller movie in book form, then the lack of ultra-deep or realistic character development doesn’t really ruin the story too much.
Whilst this novel’s pacing isn’t as rollercoaster-fast as the pacing “Zero Hour” was, it’s still really good. This novel takes a little bit more time to build up suspense, with the novel’s more slow-paced scenes also helping to make the action scenes more thrilling by contrast too. Still, this isn’t exactly a “slow” novel. It’s the sort of thing that can easily be binge-read in about two or three days.
Even so, one scene (where two characters discover a dry lake that the audience already sort of knows about) seemed a little bit superfluous. Likewise, there’s at least one contrived “deus ex machina” moment later in the story where the protagonists just happen to stumble across something incredibly useful at the right time.
Since this novel has slightly more of an emphasis on suspense and investigation than on rollercoaster-like thrills, these scenes are a little bit more difficult to overlook. Even so, the superfluous scene is over quickly and the “deus ex machina” scene allows for some spectacular moments a little while later. So, these small flaws are easily forgivable.
Likewise, this novel contains some interesting thematic variety too – incorporating elements from other genres such as the medical thriller and political thriller genres. In addition to this, it also includes a small number of vaguely Dan Brown-esque historical detective scenes, which also provide an interesting change of pace too.
One interesting little Easter Egg in this novel is that it references two other co-written Cussler novels (which I’ve still got to read) that were published around the same time. In one scene, Sandecker mentions that Dirk Pitt is in South America (presumably a reference to “Havana Storm”) and, in another scene, the main characters briefly find themselves in the middle of what I assume to be a scene from “The Emperor’s Revenge”.
All in all, “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is a gripping thriller novel. It’s more sophisticated, slightly more “realistic” and more suspenseful than “Zero Hour”, but it isn’t quite as rollercoaster-like as a result. But, on it’s own merits, “The Pharaoh’s Secret” is still one of the better thriller novels I’ve read. If you want a binge-readable novel that is like a high-quality Hollywood action thriller movie in book form, then you could do a lot worse than this novel 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.