Ah, the endless lure of The Da Vinci Code. Will it never end? Publishers continue to market books for “fans of Dan Brown” and, given the staggering amount of money it’s made, that’s no surprise. Sadly, Brown is a simply dreadful writer, though of course he’s a very clever one – he keeps readers turning pages by having incredibly short chapters, each of which ends on a cliffhanger of some sort. It’s as if there’s a perpetual orchestra playing “dum dum DUM” at the close of each scene. But can millions of readers be wrong? Well … yeah.
Veteran British TV producer Simon Toyne’s Sanctus is a far better written, smarter book than The Da Vinci Code, so one hopes that despite the “fans of Dan Brown” marketing ploy, people who don’t like Brown’s work, but who do like thrillers in general, will still pick up the book.
Sanctus has enough delicious plots and counterplots to fill a cathedral. It begins with a secret order of monks called the Sancti, who live in the Citadel, a Vatican-like autonomous state built into a mountain near the city of Ruin in Turkey. Within its walls, the monks guard a wonderful, terrible secret (of course). One day, a monk is seen climbing to the top of the mountain, and then standing for hours in a cruciform position. His unusual vigil attracts the attention of the media, but before anyone can figure out what his purpose is, he leaps to his death.
Liv Adamsen, a New Jersey reporter, discovers that the suicidal monk is in fact her long-missing twin brother, Samuel. She flies to Ruin to find out what happened and to claim her brother’s body, but is immediately shot at and almost kidnapped; it seems that the Sancti are very interested not only in keeping her away from her brother’s body, but in silencing her permanently.
Kathryn Mann is a member of another older Order, people who believe in a heretical version of the Bible, and who have been keeping their own secrets for thousands of years. They believe that an ancient prophecy is about to be fulfilled, and that their time has finally come. She and her family also head to Ruin to watch events unfold and in hopes of manipulating them in their own favour.
Assisted by the police detective in charge of investigating Samuel’s death, Liv is desperate to find out why her brother killed himself, and what he’d been doing for nearly a decade. Samuel’s very body may in fact provide clues, but Liv is thwarted at every turn by forces in and outside the Ruin police department.
Events continue to become stranger and more dangerous as the body is stolen from the morgue, and Liv ends up on the run, not knowing whom she can trust. As she races against time for any hint of what the Sancti monks are so bent on keeping from the rest of the world, Liv discovers that not only are the monks willing to kill her, they’ll kill anyone she’s spoken to. All to preserve a millennia-old secret that could literally change the world order.
While some of this sounds quite luridly melodramatic, this is, after all, standard thriller territory. What elevates Sanctus above the pack is that Toyne is a compelling writer who covers this ground with confidence and flair. And of course you want to keep reading because you’re dying to know what the big secret is. In this case, it’s a nice little humdinger, especially given the potential repercussions. I almost wish Toyne would write a second book, examining the political, religious and socio-cultural fallout from the new world order he’s set up. As it stands, Sanctus will quite likely offend proponents of pretty much every world religion, with the possible exception of Wiccans.
In general, Toyne handles all of the disparate narratives with aplomb, and if the characters are occasionally a little one-dimensional, it’s mostly irrelevant because it’s a fun roller-coaster ride. One does wish, though, in general, that writers in the thriller arena would occasionally show, or let their characters show, a glimmer of humour. Yes, we are dealing with corruption and violence and high stakes and world affairs, but one of the ways people cut tension is by making light of things. There’s a self-seriousness to these sorts of books that can become wearing. How I still long for Homicide: Life on the Street, a TV show in which the cops dealt with exactly these kinds of issues (minus the religious conspiracies) but never a dearth of smart-alecky comments.
Still, Sanctus is highly enjoyable for people who like this sort of thing, and perhaps especially for people who don’t. And as for Simon Toyne: Dan Brown he’s not. Thank goodness.
Sandra Kasturi is a Toronto writer, editor and publisher, and author of The Animal Bridegroom.Report Typo/Error
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