A recurring theme in the Ethan Gage books is the cultural collision of mysticism and science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when our modern age began. Ethan’s mentor Benjamin Franklin represents the new rationality, and characters such as the magician Cagliostro (cited in the first book of the series) represent the widespread popular yearning for mystery. Even as the French Revolution banned religion and imposed the metric system, people were thrilled by the promise of the supernatural. Ethan has experimented with electricity, a submarine, and a glider, but he’s also explored pyramid mysteries, mythic artifacts, and ancient super-weapons. I think the series is somewhat unique in its combination of accurate historical military adventure and scientific musings.
Ethan’s priestess wife Astiza represents the mystic tradition, and in The Three Emperors she not only provides her own narration, she is embroiled in a hunt for a machine (the Brazen Head) and alchemical formula (the Philosopher’s Stone) that represent the beginnings of engineering and chemistry.
As a former science reporter for the Seattle Times, this intellectual collision intrigues me. Even today there is widespread doubt or ignorance about basic tenets of science (according to National Science Foundation polls) and widespread belief in Bigfoot, angels, miracles, aliens, and shadowy conspiracies. The Three Emperors revolves around a competitive hunt for a real medieval legend, an automaton programmed by the scholar Albertus Magnus (a German monk in Middle Ages Paris) to foretell the future. Characters also seek the “purity” of fundamental elements, believing that a combination of mysticism and science can turn lead into gold. In other words, they are after the 1805 equivalents of a super-computer and supercollider – and have the same debates about the allure and danger of technology. Would knowing the future be a blessing or a curse? (A modern supercollider, incidentally, played a key role in my novel, Blood of the Reich.)
The Gage series has taken Ethan chronologically through the ascension of Napoleon to power, and The Three Emperors moves the hero from the naval battle of Trafalgar off Spain (where The Barbed Crown ended) to the Dec. 2, 1805 Battle of Austerlitz in Central Europe, which was Napoleon’s greatest victory. Ethan travels from Venice to the present-day Czech Republic, and I was happy to follow in his footsteps. All the major buildings and castles in the novel are real places open to tourists today – including the medieval silver mines of Kutna Hora and the venerable theater of Cesky Krumlov. As I toured, I plotted.
Austerlitz is southeast of lovely Prague, and that capital fit perfectly with the magic/science theme of the book. Prague was a magnet for scientists, intellectuals, and alchemists in the Renaissance, from astronomer Johannes Kepler to astrologer and alchemist John Dee. In their quest to know the future, my heroes and villains find Prague and its resources critical. In all the Gage books, Ethan’s environment becomes a character in the narrative, and Prague’s mystery fills that role in this one.
Ethan has also evolved from romping rascal to dogged family man, and my editor suggested giving more voice to Astiza and their son Harry. The five-year-old plays a critical role not revealed until the middle of the book. My own children and grandchildren have inspired his development.
I also became interested in Napoleon’s enlightened policies (for that time) toward Europe’s Jews and their ghettos, and thus introduced several Jewish characters, including a Napoleonic soldier who plays a heroic role. The novel notes that Bonaparte had contemplated as early as 1799 the establishment of Israel, but was deterred by his defeat at Acre. (The Rosetta Key.)
My goal, then, was to combine the history of the Austerlitz campaign with the intellectual and emotional yearnings of 200-year-old characters who wrestle with the same questions we do. What is life’s purpose? Are alchemical formulas and fortune-telling robots a way to a better future, or are such devices wicked and uncontrollable? And (not to give too much away) do we literally become fatally entangled with our own desires?