The Last Ember

by Daniel Levin

New York: Riverhead Books, 2009, 418 pp.
$25.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by John Merrill

The Last Ember by Daniel Levin is an archaeology adventure novel, in the same genre as, for example, King Solomon’s Mines or Raiders of the Lost Ark. As we have seen from Eric Cline’s nonfiction account of searches for lost artifacts,a there is considerable public interest in such topics, and readers who have that interest may find author Levin’s tale to their liking. Its premise is that the fabled gold menorah, thought to have been looted from the Jerusalem Temple by the Roman general (and later, emperor) Titus, in 70 A.D., was in fact saved by none other than the controversial Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. The hunt for the fabled artifact, triggered in modern time by clues in the writings of Josephus himself, involves a dashing protagonist, a not-very-transparent version—i.e., lawyer trained in classics—of the author himself. Together with his once and future girlfriend, a gorgeous Italian archaeologist, the hero traces clue after clue through a maze of plot twists, with a colorful supporting cast that features terrorists who finance their activities by selling looted artifacts, a Colombo-like Italian police inspector, and so forth.

Although the tale is imaginatively constructed, it betrays some of the stylistic cracks that are often found in a first-time author’s armor. A well-known rule of imaginative fiction is that, in order to get readers to buy in to one’s made-up plot elements, the verifiable facts of the story need to be accurate. Thus, when the hero on page 1 is found arriving in Rome on an Alitalia flight from New York at midnight Rome time, the reader who has actually made such a trip, which in fact lands at midday, will have difficulty suspending his or her disbelief of the more imaginative parts of the ensuing plot. The plot’s credibility is similarly tested when Josephus’s birth date is given as 30 A.D., when it is widely accepted (and ascertainable from Josephus’s own writings) that he was born in 37 A.D.

The novel is a cornucopia of Latin, Hebrew and contemporary Italian expressions, as well as a complex catalogue of archaeological features—some real and some imagined. It moves at rapid pace through multiple venues, with plot transitions that will alternatively thrill readers or confuse them. In the end, even the author betrays some signs of fatigue, with early promises of workmanlike phrasing degenerating into lines like the following: “… Jonathan’s voice was around them like something vibrant, moisturizing. They gasped with delight, their cataract eyes ablaze.”

In his acknowledgments, the author praises his editors, as is customary. But in places like the foregoing, readers may find themselves wishing the editors had provided a bit more input.




a. From Eden to Exile



John Merrill is a contributing editor of BAR.

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  • Neshama says

    Solon, obviously you have fallen victim to the way of life “lying” that characterizes revisionist Arab politics. They spout the opposite to the truth because they have never accepted the fact that “Yitzchak” son of Avraham was chosen by G-d to procreate the Jewish people. They insist that Yishmael was chosen by G-d. This reversal dominates their denial of Jews (their cousins in theory), Jewish history, the Jewish Beit HaMikdash, or Temple as it was known during first and second temple times. The Arabs only somewhat congealed many centuries later when Mohammed appeared on the scene. Therefore your understanding is is the opposite of reality and truth.

  • Solon says

    Never mind the timing of flights to Rome, this book had far greater “inaccuracies.” I use scare quotes because the inaccuracies were so pervasive that they had to have been intentional.

    The greatest inaccuracy was the notion that Muslims/Arabs were excavating the Temple Mount in an attempt to obliterate “Judeo-Christian” symbols and, thereby, history.

    In fact, Jews in Israel have excavated the Temple Mount and are actively obliterating all traces of Palestinian life in ancient Palestine.

    Further point of fact, according to history professor at Purdue University, the hyphenation of Judeo to Christianity took place only after the second world war, in the USA. The term and concept are not appropriately applicable to first century Rome, or even Jerusalem.

    In short, Levin’s fiction was one long Islamophobic rant. No Jew in the novel was seen in a negative light — Josephus was glorified for his treason; and no Muslim was portrayed in a positive light.
    Levin wrote hasbara. He did it badly. But hasbarists do not do what they do for art’s sake, they do it to engender hatred of the other.
    I find it offensive and appalling.

  • jo says

    In the words of Count Omashi: “A great read.”

  • jo says

    I’m 95% of the way thru the book, and – though there are points where I find a few ‘cracks in the armour’ – it has more to do with perhaps one-too-many steps to the final “holy grail”, as it were – than with factual issues. As someone who’s lived in/traveled to Rome on a regular basis, I find his factual descriptions of the city, neighborhoods, streets, official figures, and – yes – even travel time (most flights leaving NYC 8-9pm EST and arriving early morning, with the 6-hr time change; unless, of course, you arrive at Ciampino) refreshingly accurate and a treat to relive. My only source of question, though not a shocking surprise, is the author’s own attempt at subtle revisionist history, re: Josephus’ true alliances; though of course, Elie Wiesel seems to feel it’s long overdue. :/

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