Saturday, October 02, 2010

Review: The Emperor's Tomb, by Steve Berry

"The Emperor's Tomb" is the first Steve Berry book that I've read, and I enjoyed it very much. Since the main characters are part of a series of books, there are times in the story where a previous event is mentioned and the reader doesn't really understand the reference. But I would say that this book can mostly stand on its own. I love books that teach me something along the way, and this book is packed with Chinese history and descriptions of the landscape. In the back of the book, the author gives a run-down on what aspects of the book are true and which are fiction; I found that to be a very nice touch. I found the pacing of the book to be nicely done, and most of the characters had sufficient depth to them. The story basically explores a scenario of how the next transition of power inside China could occur, and how the apparent scarcity of oil in the world impacts world politics. That sounds a bit boring when I write it that way, but I think the book is a fascinating political thriller with a bunch of history and treasure thrown in for color and context. I would recommend this book even to those who have not read any previous Steve Berry books.

Some of the things I loved learning in this book:
The Chinese were the inventors of many technologies hundreds of years before they were re-invented in the western world. For example:
  • the rotary mill for separating husks and stalks from grain
  • the stirrup for riding horses
  • water clock
  • sundial
  • gun barrels
  • porcelain
  • astronomical etchings
  • the compass
  • the abacus calculator
  • the decimal system
  • the zero, negative numbers, fractions, the value of pi
  • movable type for printing presses
  • paper
  • the seismograph
  • the parachute
  • the rudder, masts, sailing, and navigation
  • China was more advanced agriculturally in the 4th century BCE than Europe was in the 18th century: they used row cultivation, hoed weeds, used the seed drill, the iron plow, and an efficient harness.
  • China could drill wells to 400 meters depth by 1100 CE, while American drillers barely managed 400 meters in the 19th century.
Did you know there are 56 minorities in China?
Did you know that more than 70,000 young children are stolen each year in China? Most are boys, and they are sold to families who are desparate for a son.
Did you know that the Chinese were able to drill for oil 2,500 years ago? They harvested crude oil and natural gas and used them both in their everyday life.

And then there's this neat debate about biological (biotic) vs. non-biological (abiotic) origins of oil. If oil is only derived from degraded biomass, then China has about 2.1% of the world's reserves, the US has 2.7%, Russia has 7% and the Middle East has 65%. The US keeps about a 60 day reserve supply; Japan keeps 100 days, but China uses so much that it has only about a 10 day reserve supply at any time. China uses more than 300 million tons of crude a year, which it "buys" from Africa, Latin America, and Russia. According to this debate, oil found relatively near to the surface is biotic oil, while oil found much much deeper is abiotic. According to this theory, abiotic oil is constantly produced by the earth down near the mantle. Thus oil is not actually a scarce item. If this ever is proven true, the world and its politics will change with a great upheaval. Makes for a fascinating thriller!!

I love one line in the book in particular: "You watch too many CSI on television. Or NCIS. I love that show. Mark Harmon is the tough guy."

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