Latest Ethan Gage adventure a bit overblown

  • Article by: CAROLE E. BARROWMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 20, 2009 - 2:43 PM

A swashbuckling and melodramatic thriller, set in the Midwest in the 19th century.

The Dakota Cipher by William Dietrich

Ethan Gage, the raffish hero of William Dietrich's series of swashbuckling novels, has spent most of his time "on the hinge of history" getting "bruised, singed and heartbroken." In this adventure, he must flee Europe for America after an inopportune sexual encounter (or three) with Napoleon's married sister.

Gage and his cohort in this tale, Magnus Bloodhammer, a Norse giant of a man, are asked to trek west of the Great Lakes at the behest of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's motives are political and patriotic. For "democracy to work," says Jefferson to Gage, "men must be farmers," and so he sends Gage on a pre-Lewis & Clark scouting trip to find "blue-eyed Indians," open land and "woolly elephants."

Gage has more covert motives. Bloodhammer has persuaded him that Thor's Hammer may be buried in a settlement in Dakota territory; Gage wants to profit from the discovery.

Dietrich's novel is presented to readers as a "rip-roaring" adventure, a thriller set in the 19th century, but I couldn't stop giggling as I turned the pages. This book is the male equivalent of what I call a "heaving bosom and bulging biceps" romance. An improbable plot propels it, characters are flat and there's lots of "bucking and plunging" and "stirred ... juices." The main female character, Aurora Somerset, has a "cascading torrent of auburn ringlets," is "as frightening as temptation, and as irresistible as Eve's apple." Men "blinked and blushed" in her presence and she "trilled" when she talked. See? You're giggling now, too.

Dietrich is not a bad writer. At times, Gage finds himself in situations that are genuinely funny. Dietrich also knows history -- even if it is a "Cliff Notes" version. In the end, though, I was bored. Gage comes across as a cockier, better-equipped, and better-looking Forrest Gump who saunters in and out of history, but chocolates or not, Gump at least had a metaphor for it all. There's no such imagery here.

Carole Barrowman is a professor of English at Alverno College in Milwaukee. She blogs at carolebarrowman.com.

  • THE DAKOTA CIPHER

    By: William Dietrich.

    Publisher: Harper, 355 pages, $26.99.

    Review: Dietrich isn't a bad writer, but he goes overboard with some of his melodrama.

    Events: 7 p.m. Friday, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; noon Saturday , Once Upon a Crime, 604 W. 26th St., Mpls.; 2 p.m. next Sunday, Barnes & Noble, Har-Mar Mall, Roseville.

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