Seven Wonders – Ben Mezrich

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This book was sent to me courtesy of Random House India in exchange of an honest review

Seven wonders follows in the proud tradition of the slew of Dan Brownesque novels that have flooded the market in recent years. It is amazing when an author creates a work worthy of getting an entire genre named after him. In normal parlance, these novels would probably fall under the archaeological-detective-religious iconography-thriller-Indian Jones genre. Yes, calling such books the Dan Brown genre is just easier.

The cover of the book is a map of the world superimposed on gears which is a nod to the content of the book and does the job adequately. The yellows and reds are eye-catching.

The story begins when Jeremy Grady, a socially awkward MIT genius, finds that the Ancient seven wonders of the world and the Modern wonders are enantiomers of each other and present themselves mathematically in the form of a double helix. Even as he is musing on this discovery, he is brutally murdered. Enter his twin brother, Jack Grady, who is a field anthropologist and an Indiana Jones-like explorer, to try and figure out the reasons for his brother’s death. He is usually joined by two of his graduate students on his jaunts around the world to ‘raid’ ancient sites in pursuit of a degree. When he is informed of his brother’s death, Jack takes it upon himself to find out the reason for this by the simple process of stealing evidence from the crime scene. That he does not ask to look at security footage but simply rushes out to solve a thrilling puzzle that will in no way get him to his brother’s murderer but surely ensure his tenure is something I worked out halfway through the book. In Rome, Sloane Costa, a botanist, evades guards and manages to get inside the Colosseum’s restricted area to discover an ancient vine that conceals a mural of Amazonian women and an artifact. This leads her on the trail of Jack Grady, the leading light on Amazonian culture and instead of just making a call she follows him half way around the world. Not just that, she then joins him and his graduate students in a mad dash all over the globe to desecrate the most important heritage sites of the world as their resident botanist. Her presence with them never really makes complete sense. That they are never caught or even spotted by any officials as they destroy protected property is only logical. That they manage to evade trained assassins time and again is also a matter of course. The only jarring note is that it seems their trip around the world is funded by their universities, which is just unbelievable. Can you imagine universities who as a rule weep when doling out money for a single light bulb actually funding an illegal treasure hunt? Anyway, as the chase moves from country to country like a global treasure hunt, none of them are really aware of what it is that they are chasing – and unfortunately neither are we. The villain is a powerful woman descended from a line of Amazons, or so we are given to believe, who instead of simply following orders from a faceless organization that seems to send secret messages to all its followers, goes rogue and decides to use her money to find everything even remotely related to the Amazons. I don’t really blame her. After all, I was just as eager to figure out what the organization was trying to protect. Why the Amazons have to remain a secret is beyond my ken. And when the clues lead to the most improbable place of all and the even more improbable discovery there, that is the point when you realize that none of your answers are ever going to be answered.

The book meanders aimlessly through grandiose locations and fantastic premises and yet is never able to create a truly ‘aha’ moment. The most disturbing aspect of the book was the impunity with which the characters set out to destroy ancient artifacts in order to fulfill their ambitions. When professors who study history are so ready to destroy it, can we really ever blame the poor adolescent boys who carve lovelorn messages on monuments. It becomes tedious and boring very soon. The worst bit is not knowing what the characters are really chasing. How will solving an ancient puzzle find the murderer, unless you knew that he/she will be present at the end of the trail as the trophy. There is some extremely good guesswork happening all through the book and at times it is also hilarious – like in the end when all the bronze pieces come together to form a sort-of centipede which when placed at the foot of a sphinx slithers into a hole like a live snake. The idea that the Amazons knew about the double helical structure of our DNA and decided to go to the trouble of painting murals and hiding brass clockwork tablets all over the world to hide the first perfect DNA falls spectacularly flat. Why hide it being the foremost question leaping to the mind? No explanations forthcoming by the way.

In the bit about the visit to the Taj Mahal – even allowing for the artistic license given to all artists – after reading his description of India and Indians I was seriously worried whether I should believe anything else he wrote about the other places that his characters visited. Oh, I agree that Delhi is crowded, really hot, has dirty streets and lots of beggars but is that all that you can see. For one thing, he talks of men in ‘traditional Indian garb (of) flowing white, brown and gray shirts and pants tied at the waist’. I am at a loss to figure out what this ‘traditional garb’ is or where he found men dressed in it. Thankfully, he doesn’t call us snake-charmers – instead, he adds the twist of a rabid, 18-inch-long pet rat on a leash as compensation. We have been inured to Westerners referring to our beloved Lord Ganesh as the ‘Elephant God’ – he isn’t the God of elephants or an Elephant who is a God – but to refer to him as a ‘her’ just shows incredibly poor research. In this age of internet and information explosion to get such a basic thing wrong is just unacceptable and disrespectful. Especially when you are trying to mimic a writing style which was based on mingling fact, fiction and research. The author keeps referring to the loot of idols and jade Buddhas from ‘tombs’ in India, which is an alien concept since we did not build tombs or keep idols in them as far as I know.

So, in case you didn’t figure it out as yet, I didn’t like the book. I agree that it is a creditable effort but for the genre that it aspires to, it misses hitting a lot of spots.

I am truly sorry if the review seems too waspish, but it just seems to be flowing that way today.

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