An antiquities expert is summoned in the middle of the night to a major European city in order to investigate a mystery that he soon realizes is a cross-historical conspiracy with devastating modern implications.
If you thought, "That's the plot of The Da Vinci Code," you're close, but it's actually The Last Ember, a debut novel by Daniel Levin, who grew up in Hollywood, Florida, and reads tonight at 8 at Books & Books Coral Gables (265 Aragon Ave.).
"Comparisons to The Da Vinci Code are inevitable," Levin says. His publisher, Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin, seems to hope so, crafting a cover that's eerily similar (compare the fonts) to the Dan Brown mega-blockbuster. But whereas Brown's novel was based secondhand on sloppy scholarship that's since been debunked (Holy Blood, Holy Grail), The Last Ember has some real historical meat to it, thanks to Levin's extensive research as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and his degrees from Harvard (law) and the University of Michigan (classics). And in contrast to The Da Vinci Code's two-dimensional demonization of religion, The Last Ember takes a much more complex view of the intersection of politics and faith as it relates to historical revisionism, the issue that lies at the center of the book.
The story of writing The Last Ember began while Levin was living in Israel and clerking on that nation's supreme court, and he came across the case of an illegal excavation. "I immediately thought, That would make a great novel," he says. "What if someone was trying to control not the future, but the past?"
Several illegal excavations are uncovered by Levin's fictional protagonist, antiquities lawyer Jonathan Marcus, but all the places he describes are real, and some of the excavations are based on actual digs. The villain in the story, a powerful spy known only through an alias, is funded by a real group called the Waqf Authority, an Islamic land trust that has controlled Jerusalem's Temple Mount since 1192 C.E. and has recently been accused of conducting archaeologically destructive construction work (for a fifth minaret for the Al-Aqsa Mosque) beneath the holy site. In Levin's novel, the construction is a front for an illegal, hatchet-job excavation whose purpose is not to bring history to light, but to rewrite it. And because the villains in the story are primarily Islamic and the history that's under threat of being destroyed is primarily Jewish, the book deals with some very current touchstones of controversy.
Levin insists, however, that the book is not about Jew versus Muslim, but about how certain people manipulate religion to push a political agenda. "Revisionism of history is always political," he says. "There's never any religious mandate to erase archaeology."
Much of the joy of The Last Ember stems from its historically accurate details: the stegnagraphic codes, the ancient architecture, and the religious artifacts that the villains in the novel are trying to erase. Levin takes time to note, for instance, how plants indigenous to Africa and Asia Minor came to grow beneath the Roman Coliseum (The seeds fell off of the lions and tigers imported for bloodsport), in addition to noting that, when it was active, the Coliseum wasn't called the Coliseum, but the Flavian Amphitheater. (The name "Coliseum" wasn't invented until the Sixth Century.) Rather than slowing down the pace of the conspiratorial plot, the historical asides invigorate the necessity of the heroes' race against time to preserve these artifacts. His descriptions of the ruins are finely wrought, due once again to his willingness to conduct firsthand research. Levin visited all of the sites described in the book, both in Rome and Jerusalem, and even got beneath the Temple Mount, a place no non-Muslim is supposed to be allowed to enter. "Let's just say there wasn't a tour guide," he said when pressed for details.
In fact, I often found myself wishing Levin would have stuck closer to the thread of history and spent less time on Marcus's sordid past and his romantic interest in his colleague, a U.N. preservationist named Dr. Emili Travia. In architectural terms, the interpersonal story lines serve as columns for the historical narrative but aren't built with quite the same aesthetic density.
Levin's passion for history, however, and his willingness to do such exhaustive and thorough research means he'll win over many Jack Higgins and Clive Cussler-type readers. The next step will be winning over the devotees of prose masters such as John le Carré and Graham Green.
South Florida will be rooting for him.
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