I will admit upfront that I have not read any books by Dan Brown. I am not usually one to read conspiracy laden thrillers; particularly those that claim, albeit in a fictionalized way, that historic Christianity is built on a giant lie. But Sanctus by Simon Toyne piqued my interest nevertheless.
Here is the publisher’s synopsis:
A man climbs a cliff face in the oldest inhabited place on earth, a mountain known as the Citadel, a Vatican-like city-state that towers above the city of Ruin in modern-day Turkey. But this is no ordinary ascent. It is a dangerous, symbolic act. And thanks to the media, it is an event witnessed by the entire world.
Few people understand its consequence. But for foundation worker Kathryn Mann and a handful of others, it’s evidence that a revolution is at hand. For the Sancti, the cowled and secretive monks who live inside the Citadel, it could mean the end of everything they have built. They will stop at nothing to keep what is theirs, and they will break every law in every country and even kill to hold it fast. For American reporter Liv Adamsen, it spurs the memory of the beloved brother she lost years before, setting her on a journey across the world and into the heart of her own identity.
There, she will make a discovery so shocking that it will change everything. . . .
It turned out to be an fast paced and entertaining read. One that overcame some of the weaknesses of the genre by doing a few things well.
The first thing that the book does well is drop you into the story. Instead of trying to start with the back story, Toyne gets right to the heart of the matter; he starts with the mystery but in action form (see video above) and so hooks the reader at the start.
In fact this hook, the man who jumps from the Citadel and the mystery involved, fuels the rest of the story. From the very beginning you are pushed forward trying to figure out what exactly happened to drive this man to jump (what did he see in that ceremony, what is the message he left on that piece of leather and those seeds, etc.).
As it happens there is a video teaser to illustrate this:
Which brings us to the second positive, the pace. With short chapters and plenty of action the book is a quick and suspenseful read. The story never gets bogged down trying to explain the history involved or fill in the details of the characters. Everything is done “on the fly” and so the pace is fast and steady; and the tension builds.
While none of the characters are particularly deep, there are enough angles and side stories to keep the action interesting and the plot moving forward. This is classic good versus evil with both sides seeing themselves as the good guys (although it is pretty clear who Toyne thinks are the true good guys). This also pushes the plot forward as both race against time (also a classic device).
Lastly, the exotic setting and backdrop make for an interesting story. The mountain gives the story a center and the monks in the mountain give it a unique flavor. Granted, everybody speaks English and the town of Ruin is presented as rather vanilla but the mountain and its history are what animates the story.
The weaknesses of the story are common to the genre, IMO anyways. The plausibility level is pretty low. Toyne doesn’t really even try to make much of it plausible. You just have to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. Liv Adamsen, her back story and her interaction with Gabriel is particularly implausible. And the connection between the ancient sect in the citadel and the faith of Christians around the world is never really explained; is left generic and unexplored except for a few references to a heretics bible and the creation story in Genesis.
I also think this work succeeds despite its mythology or underlying worldview if you will. The secret behind the sacrament struck me as silly – a sort pagan feminism attractive to certain types of post-modern westerners; or an idealized version of creation myth. But I didn’t keep reading because I thought the secrets being discussed had some connection to real history and belief but because I enjoyed seeing the action play out and wanted to find out what happens to the characters. I wanted to find out the secret at the heart of the mountain but I didn’t find it insightful or religiously significant. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Sanctus is an entertaining and intriguing thriller but, like many, requires you to suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the fast paced action and interesting twists and turns. The first of a planned trilogy, it will be interesting to see how the secret finally revealed at the end plays out moving forward.
If you like your thrillers fast paced with a taste for conspiracy theories and religious mythology be sure to check this one out.