Sanctus – a clever thriller with a twist (a spoiler-free book review)

A bit of a first for MovieBrit this evening – a book review. Although, as the one thing I do even more than watch movies is read books, it was just a matter of time. Plus I used to review books for a living so it’s hard habit to shake off. My enjoyment of reading has been rejuvenated and intensified over the last six months by my purchase of a certain Amazonian reading device. However, the Kindle has had the rather unexpected side-effect of getting me back into enjoying treebooks more than ever.

Thanks to Twitter’s @TheCrimeDesk, I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Sanctus, the debut novel of British author and TV writer, Simon Toyne. Let’s take a moment to set the scene in what is an extremely atmospheric novel.

A young man stands on the top of the citadel, a mountain at the heart of the ancient city of Ruin in Turkey. He forms the shape of the cross and leaps off in front of news cameras, tourists and pilgrims. By this act, his body will not only escape the prison of the fortress, it will reveal clues to the identity and nature of the secret contained within the citadel, the Sacrament. More than one group of people wants to uncover or preserve that Sacrament, including the young man’s family, the monks in green habits within the citadel and a heretic group, many centuries old. You won’t be surprised to hear that they will stop at nothing, in their endeavour and in their sacrifice.

At this point, you may get all kinds of Dan Brown shivers but while that would be understandable it would be wrong. Sanctus is far more clever than a Dan Brown novel and it is also much better written. Instead of Catholic Rome, we find ourselves in the heart of a vividly-realised fictional ancient city, Ruin, which tastes and smells real. It is an extraordinary creation by Toyne – alive with tourists, locals, fanatics, modern traffic forced down ancient roads. Although the Sacrament is guarded by monks, the secret itself goes deeper than Christianity or any other faith of today and the goings on within the citadel draw on ancient superstition as well as 21st-century technology. The ending will not disappoint.

But what makes Sanctus different, and the kind of read that you will not want to stop til its done, is its characterisation and its tight plotting. Short chapters here don’t mean lazy storytelling – there are so many strands of plot that they are necessary and you will read it into the night. The twists and turns with the characters are always surprising. I don’t want to give anything away so suffice to say that, at the heart of the novel, we have Viv, the journalist twin sister of the young man who jumped, and Gabriel, a determined and ruthless ‘hero’. He is charismatic but he is also a genuine mystery. We learn a fair amount about Viv but Gabriel remains unknown, complex and fascinating – a great figure around which to spin a second book.

Sanctus was such a breath of fresh air to read. I recommend it to anyone who is looking for something very different from the other thrillers that are available to read right now, something that goes beyond the Dan Brown formula and is clever to boot.

Sanctus is published on 14 April 2011.

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