James Smythe (james-smythe.com)
Blue Door Books (www.harpercollins.co.uk/…/blue-door)
At first, we thought the noise was just a radio.
Suddenly, the whole world is filled with static and, as it dies away, the words My Children. No-one has any idea where the noise has come from, or to whom the voice belongs. Hours later, the static returns, and the message continues: Do not be afraid. The world is immediately split into four camps: those who believe it was the voice of one or other god or God; those who believe it is a message from aliens; those who believe it is a top-secret experiment gone wrong; and those who heard nothing at all. As religious mania sweeps the globe and order begins to slip, fingers are pointed and pre-emptive strikes launched. But the voice has more to say, and the human race has even more difficult challenges to face.
The Testimony is, as the title suggests, a collection of first-person accounts detailing the events as they unfold, the gradual decline of order and sanity, and the descent into chaos. There are twenty-six such accounts (according to the book’s blurb – I haven’t counted), interspersed to form a loose timeline from the first occurrence of the static through to the book’s conclusion. Only a handful of these characters form what could be considered the core group, the characters essential to the central plot of the novel, and therein lies part of the book’s downfall.
As a fan of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Testimony, James Smythe’s first novel, should have ticked all the boxes for me. The idea is startlingly original and it details an all-too-plausible spiral of horror and madness as things fall apart. In some ways it is reminiscent of King’s The Stand, or Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, documenting the transition from the world we know to the one that remains when things go horribly wrong. In places it is gripping and horrific, showing glimpses of this brilliant young writer at his best, but there are too many problems and, ultimately, the book fails on a number of levels.
Some of the problems are fairly minor – nothing to ruin to story, but enough to jar the reader out of the moment. These are mainly continuity errors, problems that should have been caught before publication – names that change from one chapter to the next or problems with some of the timings: for example, everyone who heard the static heard it at exactly the same time, yet people in London heard it while eating their lunch and people in Leeds heard it at four-thirty in the morning. It sounds like nit-picky stuff, but when it’s noticeable enough to mar the reading experience, that’s a problem.
A more serious problem for me was the massive overpopulation. There are a handful of key players, and it quickly becomes obvious who they are. There are other, less-important, players who nonetheless play pivotal roles in key subplots, giving a different perspective to the events as they unfold. Beyond that there are far too many characters who seem to go nowhere: we see them once or twice for the duration of the novel, or they are frequent contributors who don’t actually add anything to the story. There is a sense, as we approach the end of the novel, that they are nothing more than padding, and it’s a frustrating realisation.
My biggest problem with The Testimony, however, is the fact that it fizzles to nothing at the end. It’s as if Smythe pulls away from the worst-case scenario at the last minute; instead of the brilliant post-apocalyptic vision of which we get glimpses in the middle section of the novel, we find a disappointing conclusion with a tacked-on feel.
The Testimony has, at its core, a wonderful idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. James Smythe’s vision of a world on the brink is all the more frightening because of its plausibility and we get all-too-brief glimpses of what he is capable of as a writer throughout, particularly in the middle section of the novel. There are too many problems, and the book never quite achieves the level it should. A disappointment, but not a complete write-off: The Testimony fails to live up to this reader’s expectations, but it has served to put a potentially wonderful writer on my radar.
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.