Review: ‘Alexander’s Lighthouse’ by Don Westenhaver
Author Don Westenhaver (Nero’s Concert) returns to the ancient world with a historical thriller set in Alexandria Egypt at a time when the Roman Empire’s rule was being challenged by a group known as “The Mob.” Set in 92 AD, Alexander’s Lighthouse is a smooth mix of fictional characters and events in a thoroughly researched historical setting.
Marco, a young Greek doctor arrives in Alexandria to study for a year at the city’s Museum and Library with something most visiting students do not have: a famous Gladiator father remembered fondly by the Empire. He secures a meeting with the Roman Prefect Titus Cornelius which leads to a position with a museum department tasked with the discovery of new weapons and other practical equipment. Marco’s access to the royal palace, his courtship of the prefect’s daughter, and his work on secret projects soon bring him to the attention of the mob.
The historical detail in this well-written novel provides readers with three-dimensional characters living, working and fighting within the scope of the long-ago politics and culture of Egypt in the city founded by Alexander the Great after it came under Roman rule. While Alexandria is an advanced, shining city with more than the usual amount of tolerance for its mix of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Christian and Jewish citizens, there are conflict areas ready to be exploited by Free Egypt, the latest incarnation of the mob.
The inventive plot features a weapon under development by Marco and three colleagues in the museum’s special projects group that both the Roman rulers and the Free Egypt rebels desperately want to have. Spies are everywhere. It’s difficult to know whom to trust. And the friction between those who relish the laws and order of Roman rule and those who want the return of an independent Egypt lurks beneath the surface. The story builds through one intrigue after another toward the inevitable open rebellion. Marco, his co-workers, the prefect’s daughter, Paula, and a rich and alluring widow named Nebit are simultaneously players and pawns in a very deadly game.
While the novel’s historical detail intrudes at times, the story moves at a rapid and believable pace in Westenhaver’s re-created Alexandria with a powerful what-if premise: what-if the weapon in the book had been created at the famous museum? No, it isn’t historical. But as Westenhaver says in the Author’s Note, “My only defense is that the weapon should have been invented much earlier than it was.” (It contained well-known and commonly used materials.)
Like Nero’s Concert (2009), Alexander’s Lighthouse has great depth along with the kind of action that keeps readers turning pages. The novel is available in trade paperback and on Kindle.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the contemporary fantasy “Sarabande.” His “Book Bits” writers’ links appear several times a week on his blog The Sun Singer’s Travels.