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Ethan and ISIS

by bdietrich on November 20, 2015

History’s heavy hand is evident in the parallels between the world of my Napoleonic-era hero Ethan Gage, circa 1807, and the Islamic tumult rattling the world today.

As I read about societies Ethan might explore, from Istanbul to India, similarities are plain. Just as research for “Napoleon’s Pyramids” in 1798 Egypt reminded me of American frustration in Iraq, the fragmenting and reactionary Muslim world of Napoleon’s day reminds me of today’s Islamic fundamentalists.

In both periods, economic hardship and military defeat led to messianic and apocalyptic Islamic cults that rose and fell alongside Muslim warlords and dictators. In Napoleon’s era, the unrest allowed European powers to begin colonizing part of the Islamic world and redraw the rest, with today’s disastrous results.

A brief overview: In the wake of devastating Mongol invasions in the 1200s and 1300s, three great Muslim empires emerged.

The Ottoman Empire occupied the Balkans, the Near East, and North Africa. The Persian (Iranian) Safavid Empire was to its east, and the Mughal Empire occupied much of present-day India and Pakistan.

By 1700, all three were beginning to weaken from problems such as war and plague, plus social strains caused by trade with Europe and an invasion of new ideas. Western powers […]


A Book for Everything

by bdietrich on October 25, 2015

Years of oddball book buying have turned my home library into a treasure hunt for titles I forget I ever had. It’s a reminder of the unsung passionate projects that authors tackle, often with little hope of fame or fortune.

Scattered on three floors and five different clusters of bookshelves are not just mainstream reference works for my novels but quirky books that might have informed a single paragraph. I’m wary of giving them away lest they prove useful once again.

Examples include “Scalping and Torture: Warfare Practices Among North American Indians,” or “The Sex Life of the American Indian” (not as racy as hoped), or, “Indian Use of Native Plants,” or, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Voodoo.”

The first three were consulted for The Dakota Cipher, and the fourth for The Emerald Storm.

Some are fairly obvious for my Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic thrillers, such as “Walks Through Napoleon & Josephine’s Paris,” or “Soldiers at War: Firsthand Accounts of warfare from the Age of Napoleon.”

But others are singular works, occasionally self-published, that illuminate corners of my novels in odd ways. Internet book searching has made it far easier to find such help.

“Napoleon and the Jews” was used for The Three Emperors, […]


An Ethan Gage series summary

Recently, some readers have asked me about the order of the seven Ethan Gage books, with an eighth on the way.  While the books can be enjoyed as stand-alone reads, history progresses and Ethan ages and matures in the series, so it’s understandable that many prefer to read them in order.

For those unfamiliar with my Napoleonic hero, Ethan is an American adventurer and one-time protégé of the aging Benjamin Franklin who is caught up with Bonaparte and his tumultuous times. Gage is a sharpshooter, gambler, and “electrician” who has a self-deprecating sense of humor and a wry view of humanity. He struggles with his own very human faults. Circumstance sometimes puts him in league with Napoleon, and sometimes against.

Inspirations for this character would include Indiana Jones, Hans Solo, Victorian rascal Harry Flashman, lighter treatments of D’Artagnan and Robin Hood, and fictional historical observers such as Jack Crabb in Little Big Man.

The books are carefully researched, and readers can learn a great deal. A supplement to the series is my nonfiction book, Napoleon’s Rules: Life and Career Lessons from Bonaparte.

Here’s a quick summary, with a warning of mild spoilers if you read the book descriptions. Much more detail is available […]

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Gays, Flags, Race, and Rights

History moves in mysterious ways.

This none-too-original thought occurred after a supposedly conservative-dominated Supreme Court upheld Obamacare and gay marriage, much to my satisfaction.

As a Baby Boomer trying to name our place in history after following the Greatest Generation of the Depression and World War II, I’m struck less by the technological progress of my lifetime (space travel, computers, wireless) and more by the social progress. Ideas of equality and peace that started in the 1960s are still playing out in the 21st Century.

In little more than a week we’ve had reexamination of Confederate heritage because of its ugly white supremacist side, confirmation of a major expansion government in health care, and a huge step toward equal rights for the lesbian and gay community. Being on the liberal-progressive side, I approve, but I also marvel.

I grew up in a white working class culture of the 1950s and 1960s when casual racism and sexism among relatives and construction workers was taken for granted. You could hear some of the same jokes on national TV: Sinatra’s Rat Pack made unthinking mockery of Sammy Davis Jr. What seems mean-spirited now was ‘all-in-good-fun’ then.

Those attitudes haven’t gone away. Exhibit A is Donald Trump’s recent insults […]

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Napoleon’s Rules

First I was intrigued in Napoleon the conquering icon. Then I grew fascinated with Napoleon the flawed human being.

The result is a new nonfiction book, “Napoleon’s Rules: Life and Career Lessons from Bonaparte.”

The book grew out of my research for my Ethan Gage adventure novels. Ethan is an American embroiled in the Napoleonic period, and Napoleon is the blazing sun around which characters and plot revolve.

Unlike other Napoleon books, “Rules” is about YOU. Bonaparte’s dizzying ascent and plunging fall – and his many pronouncements about life – are mined for advice, or rather fifteen “rules,” each a chapter that explores an aspect of the emperor’s success or failure.

The book is deliberately provocative, brisk, and concise, about 150 pages. Included is a timeline of Bonaparte’s life and suggestions for further reading.

Napoleon had an amazing life that draws us in because he is so humanly recognizable. He was extraordinarily brilliant, frenetically ambitious, and emotionally dissatisfied.

The Corsican kid rose from nothing, always speaking French with an accent, and yet came close to mastering the world. He also didn’t know when to quit, overreached in Russia, and ultimately was crushed.

The Greeks would call it hubris and fate. Spectacular rise and fall always fascinates […]

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The Jungle of Good and Evil

My wife and I dipped our toe into the beauty and mystery of southeast Asia recently, and encountered such a mix of modern and ancient, of the serene and the horrific, that the region floats in the mind like the rafts of hyacinth floating down the Mekong River.

I was fortunate to miss the Vietnam War (high draft lottery number) and my personal images of that place and time had come from news broadcasts and Hollywood. Now, half a century after the first American combat troops landed, we found the region has transformed at a frenetic pace – but past conflicts cast a long shadow.

Museums in Singapore and Hong Kong had major exhibits on the unforgotten horrors of Japanese Occupation in World War II. Our Vietnam guides had typically lost fathers, uncles, or grandfathers in their war. And our Cambodian guide, Arun, was a survivor of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. His father was executed by the communists, his mother sent to work in the rice fields and he, as a baby, was put in the care of an old woman too weak to hoe rice. Of thirty babies put in her care, twenty-eight died. The […]

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Napoleon and the Seahawks

Napoleon Bonaparte has a lot to say about Sunday’s improbable NFC Seahawk victory over the Green Bay Packers that sent Seattle to its second consecutive Super Bowl.

As in, “If courage is the first characteristic of the soldier, perseverance is the second.” My home team offense stunk for 55 minutes of a 60-minute game, but gosh darn it, they did hang in there.

And, “Great men are rarely known to fail in their most perilous enterprises. Is it because they are lucky that they become great? No, being great, they have been able to master luck.”

Napoleon was not a member of the Twelfth Man but he did have a lot of experience with success and failure. He’s a recurring character in my Ethan Gage series of historical novels, and I’ve compiled many of his maxims for a book I’m preparing called Napoleon’s Rules: Life and Career Lessons from Bonaparte.

Think of the parallels. A surprising rise: the Corsican loner, and Seattle’s roster of unheralded draft picks. An average height quarterback: Napoleon was 5-6 in American inches, normal for his time, and Russell Wilson is 5-10. Numerous comebacks: Napoleon from disaster in the Holy Land and Russia, the Seahawks from that 3-3 […]

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Pleistocene Park

Amid the football and Hollywood award shows this weekend, I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Andy Bunn, a scientist at Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University, who described science fiction turned science fact: Pleistocene Park.

This is a real-life experiment by Russian ecologist Sergey Zimov to convert forested tundra in Siberia to a Pleistocene-like grassland to keep permafrost frozen. The restored landscape would help prevent a catastrophic loss of carbon to the atmosphere and runaway global warming.

Andy was a colleague when I taught environmental journalism at Huxley, and he visited my classes to talk about climate change and his research in Siberia. Since 2014 appears to be the warmest yet on historical record – and since another Jurassic Park movie is scheduled for 2015 – his talk in my town of Anacortes was timely.

Bunn has been traveling for a decade to a remote area of Siberia near Alaska called Chersky, researching how melting permafrost is pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. For those who have played Risk, the nearest city – a four-hour flight away – is Yakutsk. Chersky is a former gulag area that now is almost complete wilderness, and its simplistic […]

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The Year of Four Books

There are good years, bad years, and weird years. I’ll remember 2014 as the Year of Four Books, and it was good, bad, and weird combined.

The seventh Ethan Gage adventure, The Three Emperors, was published on schedule in May, along with the paperback edition of The Barbed Crown. That would typically be it for my annual publishing calendar.

But HarperCollins decided not to contract for the next in the series, leaving me with problem and opportunity. The problem was not the standard one-book-a-year routine I’d grown accustomed to. The opportunity was to expand my writing.

Already in the works was The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Meaning in the Wild Nearby, by the Braided River imprint of Mountaineers Books. I contributed to what was very much a group coffee-table-book effort, and the photo-rich work came out at the end of September. It’s gorgeous, and I’m privileged to play a part.

About the same time my first experiment with independent publishing arrived. It’s a young adult thriller and environmental parable called The Murder of Adam and Eve. I used my forced hiatus from Ethan Gage to finish that stewing story, and have been pleased with the response to date. It’s nice to believe […]

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Genesis and “Murder”

My new novel “The Murder of Adam and Eve” is an allegory loosely inspired by an allegory, as well as the scientific explanation of our species’ origins.

The allegory is the Genesis story of the Bible, and even non-believers are generally familiar with Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the infamous apple. Such a fruit wound up on the cover of my book, although there are no apples in my novel’s text.

But parallels are fairly obvious. My teen heroes, Nick and Ellie, are catapulted by a time wormhole to a prehistoric East Africa that is Eden-like as wilderness: little changed yet by the primitive humans who live there.

When I visited Africa and witnessed different species peacefully drinking side-by-side at waterholes, I was reminded of pictures from a Childrens’ Bible.

Scientists know how resonant this story is. They got a lot of media attention by naming their hunt for our genetic ancestors after the religious Adam and Eve. My own characters fill those roles in more ways than one.

In my book, humankind’s impending leap from the African continent to the rest of the planet, and from a simple hunter-gatherer existence to civilization, are echoes of the Biblical expulsion from Eden […]

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