The Last Ember
By: Daniel Levin
An Italian antiquities squad discovers a woman’s preserved corpse inside an ancient column. Pages torn from priceless manuscripts litter the floor of an abandoned warehouse. An illegal excavation burrows beneath Jerusalem’s Dome of the rome, ground sacred to three religions.
Jonathan Marcus a young American lawyer and a former doctoral student in classics, has become a sought-after commodity among antiguities dealers. But when he is summoned to Rome to examine a client’s fragment of an ancient stone map, he stumbles across a startling secert: a hidden message carved inside the stone itself. The discovery propels him on a perilous journey from the labyrinth beneath the Colosseum to the biblical-era tunnels of Jerusalem in search of a hidden 2000-year-old artifact sought by empires throughout the ages. As Marcus and a passionate UN preservationist, Dr. Emili Travia, dig more deeply into the past, they’re stunned to discover not only an anicent intelligence operation to protect the artifact, but also a ruthless modern plot to destroy all trace of it by a mysterious radical bent on erasing every remnant of Jewish and Christian presence from the Temple Mount. With a cutting-edge plot as intricately layered as the ancient sites it explores, The Last Ember is a gripping thriller spanning the high-stakes worlds of archaeology, politics, and terrorism in its portrayal of the modern struggle to define–and redefine–history itself.
This book has been on my want-to-read list for a very, very long time and only got around to picking it up recently. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel from this genre so it was a nice change of pace from the stuff I usually read. This book is also one of several books that I am reading for the I Love Italy Reading Challenge because the story takes place (for the most part) in Rome.
My favourite thing about this by far was the fact that this novel was set in Rome. Having been there three times now, it was fun to read about Jonathan crossing Piazza Navona or entering the Colosseum (see image) or studying the Arch of Titus (I thought I had posted a photo up of that arch but I guess not) and remembering my visits there. Levin does a good job at describing the locations, complete with the bustling of tourists to all of the famous spots in the area. Reading this novel, I wished I had visited the Great Synagogue in Rome (I managed to see the one in Firenze last time I was there)–I had no idea it was so close to the Forum! The novel also briefly takes a detour to Jerusalem, which was also pretty interesting local-wise.
The plot itself was interesting, though it started off rather slow at the beginning. I appreciate the fact that the story was unique, as opposed to the many books out there right now focusing on the Templars and secret societies and rocking the foundations of the Christian faith, all of which can get pretty tiring after a while. There’s nothing in this novel that is controversial or there for shock value; rather, it’s a nice testament not only to one of the foundations of the Jewish faith but also to the intricate nature of history and how it is handled down the centuries, a topic that has been debated endlessly in historiography classes. I learned quite a bit about the reign of Titus in Ancient Rome–another period of history you do not see very often in novels–and about Jewish history during that period, which was pretty nice. Levin utilises a lot of old languages, from ancient Latin to Hebrew to bits of old Greek. In conjunction to the theme of history and its utilisation by different people over the centuries, I enjoyed the amount of focus on the work of archaeologists and preservationists; as a historian, I am an advocate for preserving historical and cultural sites so it was nice to learn quite a bit about the UN organisations devoted to these matters.
But going back to the plot itself, after the reader is introduced to the characters and the scenario, the story starts hitting its stride and the second half of the novel really starts moving frantically as Jonathan and the others sprint to find the lost artifact (you’ll have to read to find out what the artifact is). On the one hand, the story is pretty intricate, with various political groups and networks involved in the recovery of the object at hand; on the other hand, the turnover between Jonathan’s quest and to this larger issue was a little jarring reading-wise, which made me wonder whether the story could have done without that political thread or not. However, I appreciated the twists and turns that popped up towards the end because I did not expect them to occur as I read.
As enjoyable as the story was, there were two aspects of this novel that sort of nagged me a bit all throughout. One was the explanation and breakdown of the various Latin phrases; while it is necessary to translate the phrases, Levin could have made it so that the character is not always saying it per se, leaving it in the narrative instead. It makes the characters sound like automatons half the time, despite of the necessity of the translations. The second aspect that sort of nagged me a bit was that although we saw a lot of characterisation and depth in Jonathan and Mose Orvieti, most of the other characters fell a little flat, in particular Emili Travia. I don’t know if this is just the result of the story being so intricate that the characters suffered a lack of connection but I found that I didn’t care for them as much perhaps I could have.
Overall, this novel was an interesting read. It’s an eye-opening experience across later Imperial Roman and Jewish history as well as a fun romp across parts of central Rome. Despite of the two points that nagged me throughout the novel, I greatly enjoyed reading it (especially the Italian phrases scattered here and there–get to practice my little Italian there). I highly recommend this novel if you enjoy novels written by Dan Brown or Steve Berry and are into history.