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A mountainous Citadel looms above the Turkish town of Ruin; inside, an arcane holy order of monks protect an ancient secret – the Sacrament – by any means necessary. When one of the monks throws himself from the top of the Citadel, his death is the catalyst for the revealing of a conspiracy as old as man. Drawn into this is Liv Adamson, a New York journalist. Her journey to Ruin results in her meeting Kathryn Mann, a charity worker and member of a counter-sect to the monks of the Citadel. With the help of this counter-sect and a local Ruin policeman, Inspector Davud Arkadian, they unravel a conspiracy with the potential to change the world.

Simon Toyne’s debut novel Sanctus begins like a Dan Brown knock off, all sinister monks and cod-religious history, but the final reveal pushes it firmly into the realm of the meta-physical. It felt, to me, that one story was shoe-horned into the other. While I won’t spoil the ending (which I liked), I was left slightly puzzled as to why we received the build up of a conspiracy thriller, with half-hearted puzzles, codes and a whole lot of monk on non-monk action.

There are really interesting ideas and parts of this book that were left unexplored: at one point Inspector Arkadian mentions that his police department knew of “a cryptology professor […] who helps us from time to time”. The police require a cryptologist’s services from time to time? That often? It sounds like Ruin might be a fascinating city; I cannot really confirm that, as it is not expanded upon by the author. The Citadel was also something I wanted more of: considering what the Sacrament turns out to be, I would have been more interested in exploring the workings inside the Citadel. The revelation ends up being a meaty one – I would love to have found out what effect hiding it had on the monks (apart from making them uber-aggressive).

Instead, the narrative of the thriller dictates we focus on the clandestine actions of a few pretty much psychotic monks, none of which is given to us in a way that hasn’t been seen before. Which in a way is understandable. Conspiracies thrive in darkness… perhaps the ubiquity of conspiracy stories across all media have exposed all possible narrative strands and erased the potential for suspense? Either way, Sanctus doesn’t break much new ground.

A caveat: as I said above, I enjoyed the revelation at the end. Not amazing or life changing, but something I genuinely hadn’t seen before. So, I could probably forgive most of the above negative points. The author is a decent enough writer, and there are some very good parts in the book. The description of a library containing sacred books and the technology protecting it was excellent.

However: the biggest hindrance to my enjoyment of the novel – and something I was unable to overlook – was how badly it was structured. The book consists of 486 pages broken into 147 chapters, approximately one every 3 pages. And there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this: perspectives change within chapters, scenes consistently bounce back and forth for no real reason. It felt like the author was suffering from some literary ADHD, from chapter Tourettes.

One result of this is that the novel takes an AGE to get moving. Before we even begin the book, the inlay tells us a man falls to his death… his climb takes approximately 50 pages of back and forth narrative. It was profoundly irritating, and I wished the author would just get on with it, especially given that his death is the catalyst for the rest of the story. By the time the man takes a swan dive I was worried that his actual fall would read like War & Peace. Within chapters, action scenes become so compressed that they reminded me of genre parodies where a fight scene of 5 seconds becomes an extended opus of split perspectives and slow motion.

It felt like a badly edited movie, and served only to bring me out of the story repeatedly. Once this happens, other things begin to jar. Little gripes become magnified: for example, in her capacity as a crime reporter, Liv Adamson claims to have “attended more post-mortems than most rookie cops”. Is that a lot? Surely a rookie cop would be unlikely to attend many post-mortems, considering the results wouldn’t be a huge part of their beat. Or am I wrong? Are the halls of the New Jersey Coroner’s Office filled with nervous rookie cops giddy to see a dead body opened up? I want to know!

My point is that the above was a throwaway line, but having been brought out of the novel so often by then (pp208), something so small annoyed me when I should have by then been dying to get to the next chapter. I should be absorbed.

It may sound boring, but structure can often make or break a book. The book’s author, Simon Toyne, worked as a screenwriter for many years before writing Sanctus, and I feel he should’ve known better. He should understand structure. What was most frustrating to me was that this felt like a missed opportunity. However, it is the start of a trilogy, so perhaps the interesting stuff will be explored properly in the next two books. I just wish it had been explored a bit here.

Sanctus by Simon Toyne
Published 2011 by HarperCollins
Review by Robin Maginn

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