Book review: Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire by Dan Hanks

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

ARC courtesy Angry Robot Books (via NetGalley) – release date 8 September 2020 in Australia and UK.

Buried somewhere deep within a great many of us is a compulsive need to seek grand, soul-soaring adventure, the kind that plucks you giddily out of the banal and the everyday and sends you on a journey replete with thrills, spills, excitement and danger.

Perhaps it is our primal evolutionary selves calling to us to put aside the bills and pick up the jungle chopping machete, or simply a need to enliven lives that often owe more to Excel spreadsheets and appointment times than they do to derring-do and bravado.

Whatever the reason, we need more than what we have got, and while we can’t always get it in person, we can find it in books like debut author Dan Hanks’ viscerally thrilling novel, Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, which is everything your adventure-starved soul has been craving, and then some.

Reading like the wholly original literary child of Tomb Raider meets Indiana Jones meets National Treasure with an emotionally evocative side order of indie film-level humanity, Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire is a treat, the kind of book that not only joyously rips you free from the soulless shackles of mundanity but thrusts you into heady, gripping action with heart so fast that your head will be, quite happily, spinning like Anubis on a merry-go-ground.

It is one seriously entertaining book, made all the more so by the fact that the protagonist goes rip-roaring through this 1952-set post-war romp across the United States, France and Egypt with her heart (and soul) very much on her sleeve.

“Her hands fumbled over the controls, almost as awkward as Charlie had been, all sweaty and trembling. Was this the first time since the war? Since the crash that had put her on this path? She suddenly felt like she was back in the all-women’s pool of trainee pilots in Hamble Airfield, back on the green, green grass of England. Just a rookie recruit, all fresh-eyed and eager to do her part for the war effort … before being confronted with the flying bus that was the twin-seater Magistar and wondering if she was about to get herself killed.” (P. 18)

There are no cardboard cutout characters doing obligatory service to a full speed ahead but meaning-free plot in Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, least of all the very likable, if winningly flawed, protagonist.

Samanatha Moxley is as three-dimensional as they come, mixing the bravura of Indiana Jones with a real appreciation that her actions in service of her cause du jour do not come consequence free.

If anything, ex-Spitfire pilot Captain Moxley, as scarred as anyone would be after going through the lifechanging trials and tribulations of war, with all the violence, death and moral compromises that involves, only does what she has to do because she cannot abide the bad guys winning when she has lost so much time and sense of self to stopping them in the first place.

Glibly unaware Moxley is not, and so, even when events conspire to drag her into a race to locate the long-sealed secrets of the lost city of Atlantis, a frantic dash that drags in her sister Jess, her boyfriend Will, and Sam’s old war buddy and university academic Teddy Ascher, she is desperately aware of what it could all cost.

Largely because she has already paid the price for past adventures, some of which is due to her involvement with a shadowy US government agency known as The Nine, she understands that it’s all adventuring fun and games until the ex-Nazis trying to endanger your family.

Dan Hanks (image courtesy official Dan Hanks Twitter account)

It is this watchful eye on the existential demands that adventuring requires – everything comes with a price, especially trying to save the world from The Nine who want to harness Atlantis’s secret for their own, supposedly noble gain (SPOILER ALERT: Not so noble at all) – that makes Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire such an invigorating and affecting read.

There is all kinds of Girls’ Own Adventures taking place from ancient door-unlocking artifacts which fall into good hands then bad hands then – well, you’ll have to read the book to find out, won’t you? – to manic dashes across the Egyptian desert to puzzle solving on a grand scale, the kind you can’t walk away from unless you have a clear death wish.

But in the midst of titanic battles for good and evil, and imagination-seizing revelations of ancient knowledge and an ancient civilisation so powerful it could change life as we know it, and just the sheer pell-mell fun of nonstop action, there lies an enormous heart and humanity to proceedings that enriches every last moment of this marvellous read.

So well-executed is this meld of manic fun and meaningful rumination – more than once, Sam considers that her next course of action, while unavoidable, could mean more pain and heartache for herself and those she loves – that it underscores how important it is to inject copious amounts of humanity into every facet of a blockbuster narrative.

Bring forth your conspiracy theory-worthy whispers of ancient dark secrets and being from the inter-dimensional shadows by all means, but don’t forget that these are real people doing their best to keep their heads above the fray right in there with all the cool reveals and momentum-pushing action.

“Sam’s skin was clammy. A cold panic threatened to seize her insides and turn them inside out.

What if she wasn’t even the right person to save her sister, let alone the world? What if she too ended up like this, facing an unimaginably lonely death?” (P. 132)

Hanks to his credit doesn’t forget this for a second, investing every last witty line of dialogue, every character exchange and every pulse-pounding leap from pyramid to dusty cavern with so much meaning that you never forget that everything Sam does comes with a price so heavy there’s often no real way to pay it back.

You may think those kinds of tragic consequences would diminish the gee-whiz fun of a rollicking race to save the soul of the world, but quite the opposite happens.

As you lose yourself in the unveiling of secrets and the hallowed talk of exciting things beyond our understanding, and the lengths mere mortals will go to to seize control of immortal knowledge (and of course, what other mere mortals will to do save them), the story gets richer and richer and far more impacting because these characters matter, Sam matters, and you know that for all the supposed fun of the archaeological fair, that she is painfully aware that not every adventure comes with a happy ending.

Or even a particularly giddy start or starry-eyed middle.

Life can be brutishly nasty and never more so than when Nazis and those who shield them are on your trail, alluring ancient secrets are dancing around you like spirits sprung from a tomb, and you have only a 50/50 chance of surviving your latest uncalled-for darkness-challenging undertaking.

As we discover again and again in the meaningfully giddy surrounds of Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, being lifted from the banal and boring and into the almost literal realms of time-defying gods might be thrilling, and makes for a cracking good read that will make your pulse race and your heart sing, but best you remember it all comes with a price and you should be prepared to pay it before you get in too deep.

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