Captain Moxley and the Embers of Empire
It was the cover art that initially attracted me to Dan Hank’s debut novel Captain Moxley and the Embers of Empire, published this month by Angry Robot. The incredibly striking and eye-catching piece of art has a wonderfully pulp-like feel to it, evocative of the action-adventure films of the 1980s like Indiana Jones and Star Wars, with just a hint of that post-war noir aesthetic indicted by the latter part of the novel’s title. It immediately grabbed my attention when I was looking through the catalogue on NetGalley, and the back-cover blurb just confirmed my initial interest. You’ve got an ace female Spitfire pilot dragged back into the affairs of the shadowy US government agency she worked with during the Second World War; ex-Nazis and weird monsters in hot pursuit; and an archaeologist sister seeking two mysterious keys that will release an ancient superweapon. It sounded exactly like the sort of rip-roaring adventure I wanted to be a part of, and I was pleasantly surprised to be granted an ARC to review by the publisher.
The novel opens with a short, wartime prologue that sees a group of British soldiers on the beaches of Normandy encounter a group of rather sinister American intelligence agents, seeking out the titular Captain Samantha Moxley in order to acquire her services. It’s a fun little sequence, well-written and deftly making two points for the reader: Captain Moxley is a badass RAF pilot who got shot down and then linked up with the French Resistance; and this mysterious US intelligence agency is not one to be trifled with. Having piqued our curiosity, Hanks then moves the narrative forward to New York in the early 1950s, where Moxley herself makes her first appearance, making short work of an intelligence agent in an attempt to locate her archaeologist sister, apparently kidnapped by the agency. Here we get our first glimpse of the weird, occult technology that Moxley and the Agency known as The Nine utilize, as well as the Agency’s exceedingly long reach as it sends a boat-load of henchmen to try and stop Moxley. Fortunately the good Captain has acquired a seaplane, leading to a thrilling and incredibly cinematic airborne fight sequence as the seaplane flies through the New York cityscape in a bid to escape some demonic creatures unleashed by The Nine.
After a hair-raising fight that sees her just barely escaping with her life, Moxley heads to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and finally locates her headstrong sister; only to find that while The Nine might not have kidnapped Jessica, her younger sibling has nonetheless attracted the Agency’s attention by bringing back a fabled artifact, the Amulet of Isis, from overseas. Following another hair-raising encounter and escape from the museum, Moxley and her sibling flee to Paris and link up with their father, and then embark on a globe-trotting adventure to find the ancient Hall of Records and locate a terrifying, myth-laden super-weapon before The Nine can do so. Along the way, they’ll face fiendishly complex puzzles, deadly traps and complex challenges in order to uncover clues to finding the Hall of Records; all while being pursued by Agent Taylor and his sinister, ex-Nazi right-hand man Agent Smith, who have a seemingly-endless supply of henchman for Moxley fight in fast-paced, stunning action sequences. Hanks seems to delight in pulling Moxley from one ancient and mythology-laden location to another, from the catacombs of Notre Dame to the famous Egyptian Sphinx, and there’s a real flair and energy in his writing, showcasing an imagination that effortlessly sweeps the reader along for the ride until you reach a breath-taking and truly devastating conclusion that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood epic.
There are so many ingredients here that Hanks expertly blends together to create a compelling, action-packed and often surprisingly thought-provoking slice of action-adventure. That captivating narrative is part of it, but Hanks allies it with some excellent characterization, creating a compact but engaging cast of characters that succeed in keeping you invested in the novel as a whole. Moxley herself is a fiery and captivating protagonist, a seriously badass fighter pilot, resistance fighter and intelligence agency with a non-nonsense, bullish personality that you can’t help but admire. The list of accomplishments attributed to her even before the plot begins is deeply impressive, providing no end of possibilities for prequels and further stories, and she also has a fascinating background that Hanks deftly develops over the course of the novel. Her experiences when working with the resistance in France, watching the Third Reich pillage an entire nation’s culture, forced her to take a long, difficult look at the nature of archaeology and ‘discovering’ items to put in a museum. It’s a deeply interesting discourse that gives the narrative additional depth and context, and just one example among many of the novel’s great use of archaeology and mythology and integrating them into the plot, with Hanks making use of common tropes while simultaneously invigorating them, and thereby making them interesting again. Moxley’s sister Jess, an accomplished archaeologist in her own right, and with a complex relationship with her older sister, is another great character – while at first she appears to be nothing more than a way to move the plot forward, Hanks subtly develops her character across the course of the novel until she becomes a fully-fledged secondary protagonist, and someone easy to sympathize with.
The antagonists of Captain Moxley and the Embers of Empire are just as colourful and well-developed as Moxley and her family and friends. The Nine are sufficiently mysterious and powerful to make for a menacing presence in the background, a blend of the resources and firepower of a real-life OSS or CIA with the terrifying addition of a host of occult and demonic weapons they don’t hesitate to unleash to reach their goals. There are some awesome monsters and demonic presences that I really hope get exanded upon in future sequels, and Agents Taylor and Smith are great in the role of dogged, utterly ruthless pursuers. While Hanks turns Smith into a nicely sinister and powerful former Nazi officer, all scars and ze German accent and some unsettling inhuman powers, my favourite was actually Taylor; while initially appearing as nothing more than a man in a suit, his motives slowly come to the fore as the novel progresses, and you can’t help but empathize with him to an extent as he expounds on his hypocritical yet resolute concept of freedom for all, regardless of the cost in achieving that goal.
Captain Moxley and the Embers of Empire really is one of the most accomplished, impressive and enjoyable debut novels I’ve ever read, and a thrilling, pulse-pounding action-adventure novel with some surprising depths to it. While there’s plenty of fast-paced guns-blazing, fists-flying action firmly in the mould of cinematic classics like Indiana Jones, Hanks’ own unique touches and imagination make it stand out as far more than a simple pastiche or pale imitation. A potent blend of occult elements, a sly sense of humour, three-dimensional characters, and an often thoughtful consideration of the nature of mid-20th Century archaeological practices leads to a novel that is far more engaging, memorable and even introspective than Indiana Jones and his ilk could ever hope to be. Hanks remembers the simple thrills to be found in having a henchman thrown through a wooden box or out of a glass window, while also refusing to be constrained by the archetypes and tropes of the genre and setting, resulting in a novel that is a triumph for author and publisher alike. There’s plenty of scope for sequels and prequels with the plot and setting that Hanks has developed, and I fervently hope that Angry Robot will see fit to publish more of his titles. I’d love to see more of Captain Moxley and her badass adventures – but whatever Hanks writes, you can be sure that I’ll be reading and reviewing.