"THE LAST EMBER," by Daniel Levin, Riverhead Books, 418 pages, $25.95

Though much has been found, there are many treasures of the ancient world that remain shrouded in myth and are yet to be recovered.

In "The Last Ember," author Daniel Levin imagines the fate of one such object dating back to King Herod.

Jonathan Marcus is quickly becoming the man to watch at the law firm of Dulling and Pierce. His background in classics makes him the perfect choice when it comes to lawsuits concerning ancient artifacts.

So when a fragment of a first century stone map in Rome becomes a point of contention, Jonathan seems the obvious choice to inspect it.

While examining the stone, Jonathan finds a cryptic secret message that refers to "Titus's Mistake." The firm tells Jonathan to leave it alone, that they're not interested in ancient espionage.

Jonathan can't let it go, though. As the former Rome Prize winner at the American Academy in Rome, Jonathan spent years studying first-century historian Flavius Josephus, and the stone, it seems, is directly tied to him.

Ignoring the warnings of his colleagues, Jonathan returns to his roots and joins forces with Dr. Emili Travia, a U.N. preservationist who was at the academy with him.

Together, they decipher centuries-old clues hidden deep within the ruins of some of the world's most treasured pieces of architecture.

But Emili and Jonathan aren't the only ones following Josephus' path. Someone else is trying to find "Titus's Mistake" and destroy it. Their search quickly morphs from one of archaeological curiosity to one of desperation as they enter the deadly world of politically motivated archaeological destruction.

In "The Last Ember," Levin has created a world of intrigue and action comparable to that of Indiana Jones — a handsome scholar, his beautiful love interest, a helpful but bumbling old friend, an evil foe who always seems a step ahead, treasure, ancient cultures, sword fighting, explosions and murder.

The conspiracy theory on which "The Last Ember" is based was born out of Levin's own time as a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome. And his time at the Academy is apparent in this novel.

"The Last Ember" starts out a little slow. But as Levin's own excitement for the subject builds, it comes out in his characters and in his descriptions; propelling his story forward and creating needed tension.

Levin is also to be commended for keeping the artifact behind "Titus's Mistake" a secret for a chunk of the book. It's well done and becomes a turning point for the reader.

"The Last Ember" is a sophisticated debut that will have readers asking for more.

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com