Simon Toyne (www.simontoyne.net)
Released: 14 April 2011
Welcome to Ruin in Southern Turkey. Home of the Citadel, a thousand-foot-high black mountain that houses a secretive holy order, around which the city has grown, and which is the most-visited historical site on the planet. The monks within the mountain serve a single purpose: to protect the Sacrament, the mysterious object that is the focus of faith and the foundation of the Church.
When a man dressed in the green robes of the Sancti – the highest novitiate within the order – climbs to the top of the mountain and strikes a pose mirroring Rio de Janiero’s Christ the Redeemer, before throwing himself to a messy death on the cobbled streets below, he sets in motion a chain of events that could change the face of the world. Liv Adamsen a crime journalist based in New Jersey, with the help of a local policeman, and the brains behind a worldwide charity, begins to investigate, digging into a millennia-old secret that the Citadel-dwellers would do anything to protect.
To explain the plot of this extraordinary novel in any more detail than that could well constitute spoilers. What we have here is a very original action thriller-cum-whodunnit-cum-puzzle. Toyne has put a lot of effort into the mythology that supports this story, creating a well-rounded and believable world and fully-formed interesting characters. Yes, this is a gripping, fast-paced (for the most part) page-turner in the best sense, but keeps the little grey cells engaged throughout, providing a clever mystery that will keep you wondering until the final, startling, reveal.
And what a reveal. Sanctus is one of those books that keeps the reader thinking “I hope this is all worth it. If I get to the end and the butler did it, I won’t be happy.” You can rest assured, then, that there is no butler in evidence; the last time I came across a payoff this worthwhile, an ending this original and startling, was when I finished Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.
One of the book’s most distinctive characters is the city of Ruin itself. Toyne has put a lot of thought into the structure of the city, the various “quarters” that make up this sprawling tourist trap with the most distinctive centrepiece. Like Jack O’Connell’s Quinsigamond or China Mieville’s New Crobuzon (both of which sprang immediately to mind when I started reading the book), there’s something slightly off about the city, something dangerous and intriguing. I, for one, hope that Toyne returns here with future novels, to show us some of the other attractions the place has to offer.
It’s still too early in the year to call this one of the books of the year and have it actually mean something, but expect this one to be huge. Toyne has an obvious love for what he’s doing, and it shows through in the work, in the lovingly-detailed city and Citadel, the huge cast of characters ranging from the whitest of white-hats to the blackest of black-hats and every shade of grey in between, and the sheer energy that propels the reader through the story. Once you start, you’ll just have to keep going until you reach the end, and this book gave me more late nights than I care to remember, always with the mantra “just one more chapter” on my lips.
A stunning debut, a dark and terrifying crime/horror/dark fantasy novel that will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, and a book that cements Simon Toyne firmly in my own personal must-read list. On April 14th, make sure you get your hands on a copy; you won’t regret it.
Patrick Lee (www.patrickleefiction.com)
There are authors I read because I thoroughly enjoy their work, and they provide me with meaty substance that keeps me reading for days or weeks. There are other authors whose work I enjoy, but for an entirely different reason: they give me a sense of escapism, it’s like watching a fast-paced movie as you read through the words on the page. They usually produce hefty-looking tomes with chapters that span a page and a half or two pages, and frequently end each and every chapter with a hook to keep me reading! (some, James Patterson, are more blatant about this than others, but they all do it to some degree).
I picked up THE BREACH because it looked like a great ride: a man, whose past we know nothing about, except that he has spent the past decade and a half in prison, is hiking in the wilderness of Alaska. Three days out from the nearest sign of civilisation, he comes across a crashed, plain white, Boeing 747 and finds, upon investigation, that all of its occupants – including the First Lady of the United States of America – have been mercilessly slaughtered. From there, he encounters the two surviving members of the plane’s crew, being brutally tortured in a clearing not too far distant. Within minutes, this seemingly innocuous man is toting M16s in a way that would put Sylvester Stallone to shame, and manages to save one of the prisoners – a good-looking young woman (as if you didn’t know) who works for a top secret organisation called Tangent.
Tangent, it turns out, was formed to protect and investigate a strange breach that has opened 51 storeys beneath Wyoming, a gateway to another world which drops three to four entities – pieces of seemingly-alien technology – a day from some unknown time or place. It turns out that the most dangerous of these – the Whisper, which has the ability to control whoever is holding it – has been stolen, along with a couple of other very convenient entities, by a former Tangent employee who is now set on taking control of the Breach and, it seems, the world.
That’s the set-up. The rest, as you can imagine, is fairly predictable. Travis Chase, the man who started out as a hiker and ended up as Rambo on crack, joins Tangent, shoots people, uses different pieces of alien technology to get out of various precarious situations. Luckily, the breach seems to have produced exactly the right set of entities to make sure that Travis makes it out the other end, which is all very convenient. And, of course, Travis falls in love with Paige – the aforementioned young lady – and manages to get her into bed in the middle of all the excitement, horror and explosions. Again, as if you didn’t see that coming. It all builds inexorably towards the climax which, it turns out, is more of an anti-climax that leaves something of a sour aftertaste.
It goes without saying that Lee’s novel requires the suspension of disbelief for the duration. Like the books of Matthew Reilly, it moves with a breakneck pace and manages to keep the reader entertained throughout, despite the fact that you’re likely to spend most of the novel wanting to throw it across the room in disgust. One for a plane journey, then, or a trip to the b(r)each. Just don’t expect anything highbrow or believable. This is the literary equivalent of a Jason Statham movie, and it is advised that you check your brain at the door for maximum enjoyment.
The Day of the Triffids
Penguin Modern Classics (www.penguinclassics.co.uk)
John Wyndham’s classic, post-apocalyptic novel turns 60 this year. I first read it maybe 20 years ago, because it seemed to fit in the same category as books like Robert C. O’Brien’s Z FOR ZACHARIAH and William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, both of which were on my GCSE English Literature curriculum at the time. I’ve read it a couple of times since; it’s one of those books that bears repeated visits, and I suspect I’ll visit it again in a decade or so.
The novel is told from the point of view of William Masen, a biologist who specialised in Triffids, which are used as a cost-effective and more sustainable alternative to other edible oils. When the Earth passes through the tail of a comet, Masen is laid up in hospital, temporarily blinded by a Triffid sting and as a result is unaffected by the strange blindness that strikes the vast majority of the world’s population. Emerging into an eerily quiet London, Masen begins the difficult task of finding other people, and picking up the pieces.
TRIFFIDS, despite the title, is a story about human endurance and the stupidity that oft-times overcomes us. We follow Masen and his new-found lover Josella Playton, as they move through this strange new world, becoming affiliated with groups large and small, forcibly parted and eventually reunited, and we encounter the all-too-real horrors that Wyndham has placed in their path: the plague, the violent gangs who shoot first and ask questions later, the crazy Christian fundamentalists – surely Miss Durrant is a fore-runner for Mrs Carmody in Stephen King’s novella, THE MIST – and behind it all the insidious menace of the strange plants for which the book is named.
Strangely, the Triffids seem nothing more than a mere nuisance for the vast majority of the book: 8 foot tall plants with a 10-foot long sting that can kill instantly if it strikes correctly, or often enough. Plants that can be disabled with a single well-placed shot. Masen and company have more trouble with their fellow man than with the man-eating plants whose origin no-one seems to know. But as the novel approaches its climax, the threat that the Triffids pose becomes more apparent. Here we begin to see the first traces of an intelligence that no-one, least of all our narrator, has suspected. As the remaining population begin to form small communities, and move away from the plague-ridden cities, the Triffids begin to make their move, surrounding compounds and waiting for the inevitable moment when they will overcome the man-made defences.
Sure, the language is somewhat archaic – what else should one expect from a piece written in the early 1950s – but THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS holds up well. It could have been written as recently as last year – I imagine the outcome would have been much the same: without electricity, mobile phones, the Internet, where would we be? And if none of us could see, would we fare any better against a strange and deadly life-form over whom our only advantage is sight than our 1950s counterparts?
Wyndham had a flair for these post-apocalyptic visions, and the one thing he always managed to get spot-on was the human reaction to whatever threat he put in their way. TRIFFIDS stands the test of time: 60 years old and remains one of the finest pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written. Expect it to stay with you: there is no neatly-wrapped bow on top of this package. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Wyndham shows you the horror, takes you to a point of seeming safety, the eye of the storm, and leaves you there, with the Triffids lurking just outside the safe zone, to draw your own conclusions.
Simon Lelic (www.simonlelic.com)
Simon Lelic’s first novel, the quietly horrific RUPTURE, made him an instant “must-read”. THE FACILITY, his second novel, bleaker and tougher than the first, but no less enjoyable, has cemented that impression, leaving this reader pining, already, for whatever comes next.
THE FACILITY is the story of three very different men, connected by the mysterious prison facility of the title, set in an all-too-real modern-day Britain where civil liberties have been eroded almost to the point of non-existence. Henry Graves is the prison warden tasked with building and running the facility that strikes the reader almost immediately – and is confirmed by the fictional News of the World headline – as a sort of Guatanamo UK. Graves is a troubled man, cut off from his family, bound to a secret job that does not quite gel with his moral sensibilities.
Arthur Priestly, a dentist, is one of the facility’s inmates, falsely imprisoned on the word of a man he has never met. Tom Clarke, a journalist with strong views in opposition to the laws that allow the government to arrest people at the vaguest suspicion of terrorist activity, is hired by Arthur’s wife to help find where her husband has gone, and why he has been arrested.
The story is told alternately from the point of view of each of the three main characters, each with his own perspective and tone: Graves is sedate and troubled, a man losing his sense of self and his sense of self-respect; Arthur is confused, frightened and ultimately defiant; Tom at first seems like comic relief, the tone of his chapters light and airy, but it is Tom who, perhaps, provides the most drama as the climax approaches.
THE FACILITY grabs from the first page, where two unnamed men interview Arthur in an encounter that grows more violent with each paragraph – leaving the reader in no doubt that there is something slightly off about the version of reality in which this novel is based – and holds the attention throughout. It’s a tough read, like all good noir fiction, and like all fiction in that genre, there is no happily-ever-after, no – if you’ll pardon the pun – get-out-of-jail-free card.
This is modern noir at its absolute peak, and Lelic seems set for superstardom, assuming he can continue to meet the expectations he has set with his first two novels. He remains, for this reader at least, an absolute must-read.