Simon Toyne (simontoyne.net)
Released: 12th April 2012
Regular visitors may remember that around this time last year, I reviewed Simon Toyne’s debut novel, the wonderful thriller, Sanctus. I liked it so much that it ended up on my best of the year list. So it was with that all-too-familiar mix of excitement and trepidation that I awaited Toyne’s second novel; excitement because it forms the second part of a planned trilogy, and trepidation that it might not live up to expectation. I’m happy to say that any worries I might have had were laid to rest almost immediately upon opening the book.
The Key follows on immediately after the end of Sanctus. Unfortunately, due to the close links between the two books, it is almost impossible to give a brief overview of this novel without including spoilers for its predecessor. I will try to keep these to a minimum, and will most definitely not be revealing the outcome of Sanctus.
Liv Adamsen and Kathryn Mann are in hospital along with the surviving members of the Sancti from the Citadel – who have all suffered massive haemorrhaging as a result of the removal of the Sacrament from the mountain – while Kathryn’s son Gabriel has ended up in police custody. From the opening chapter, Toyne widens the scope of this second novel, introducing us to The Ghost, a Bedouin warrior who deals in ancient relics found in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. In the Vatican, Cardinal Secretary Clementi has set plans in motion that will re-float the Church financially, and in the ancient Citadel that looms over the city of Ruin, the remaining monks attempt to adapt to life without the Sacrament and its green-robed guardians.
A verse in a notebook belonging to Kathryn Mann’s father – the so-called Mirror Prophecy – sets Liv and Gabriel on a journey into the Iraqi desert, the fate of the world in their hands and the power of the Catholic Church set against them.
Like Sanctus, The Key is a fast-paced and intelligent thriller. Interestingly, the reveal that defined the closing section of Sanctus is not mentioned here until around 200 pages in – when we first see Liv, she has no recollection of what has happened in the Citadel, and we are re-introduced to this key plot point piece by piece as Liv’s memories resurface. It’s a nice trick: on the one hand, it opens the book to a wider audience than just those people who read the first book (although I would highly recommend reading them in order); on the other hand, readers of Sanctus are forced to do some of the work in recalling what has gone before.
All of the characters that made Sanctus such a success are back, and it is interesting to see how they have evolved over the relatively short time period that the two novels cover – The Key picks up around a week after the end of Sanctus. The balance of power has shifted, most noticeably within the mountain stronghold, and none of the characters have survived the events unscathed, emotionally or physically. They are joined by a host of new characters who are equally well-drawn: Cardinal Secretary Clementi who may be in too deep as he engages in shady dealings in an attempt to hide the fact that the Church is broke; the mysterious and creepy Ghost, scouring the desert for ancient relics and selling them on the black market; the massive Dick, a man with a love for words who, for this reader at least, evokes the memory of another giant of literature: Daniel Bunkowski, better known as Chaingang, from the series of novels by Rex Miller that bear the giant’s name. Here too, much to my delight (and, if the search terms that lead you folks to my little corner of the web are correct, much to the delight of many other people), is the city of Ruin in all its glory, still taking centre stage despite the fact that much of the action takes place elsewhere.
It doesn’t take long to realise we’re on solid ground here with a writer who has proven that Sanctus was not just beginner’s luck. With the exception of a mystery that really isn’t – which will by no means ruin the enjoyment of the story, but did leave this reader feeling slightly flat – The Key is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that requires some deductive reasoning on the part of the reader. It’s a solid storyline that builds on the foundations laid in Sanctus, and while it lacks something of the previous book, The Key is still amongst the best thrillers you will read this year. It marks Simon Toyne as a man to watch, one of a new breed of young, vibrant writers who set new standards of excellence in their chosen genres.
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.