Author: Simon Toyne
Hardback: 486 pages
Publication Date: 14/04/2011
Does such a thing as a low-concept thriller exist? This was the question that my brain decided to ask, rather childishly, as I was reading through the publicity blurb for debut novelist Simon Toyne’s “high-concept thriller” Sanctus. I still haven’t managed to resolve my own internal debate but I’d imagine that publishers wouldn’t admit if they did have a low-concept thriller [or would they?]. Getting back on topic though – and moving away from my rather inane digression – let me begin my review of this novel.
The setting for the action is the fictional city of Ruin [although there are a few brief sections set in New York and Rio de Janeiro]. Located in Turkey, Ruin is the oldest inhabited place on Earth and contains a mountainous citadel. One that houses a secretive and autonomous sect of Christian monks, known as the Sancti, who – legend has it – are the ‘protectors’ of something known as the Sacrament. So, when a man wearing the green robes of a Sanctus scales the cliffs above the Citadel and then hurls himself from its summit in full view of the world’s media, it is far more than an ordinary suicide – it is a symbolic act. One which heralds the beginning of a prophecy that the Sancti will try to stop by any means necessary…
If it sounds very much like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – shadowy Christian sects, age-old prophecies, gun-toting monks, etc. – then that’s because Sanctus is very much cut from the same cloth as Brown and Sam Bourne. However, it must be said that Sanctus has far less conspiracy and a lot more action than The Da Vinci Code, and the prose is also a lot less stodgy – you certainly won’t find out how many panes of glass the Sancti used in their stained-glass windows [so unlucky if that’s what you were hoping for!]. And Toyne has used that publishing favourite – very short chapters [in just shy of five hundred pages there are one hundred and forty seven chapters] – to make Sanctus incredibly pacy and very easy to read. In fact, I ended up finishing the book in a little over a day! But that’s exactly what you want, and expect, from this kind of thriller.
But, for me, the stand-out element of Sanctus was the fictional Ruin – with its cave-riddled citadel, secret passageways, winding roads and corrupt police force. According to Toyne, he came up with the idea of Ruin on a trip to Rouen [Ruin – Rouen: hmmm, I think I may see the connection!]. However, with its secretive Christian state-within-a-state, Ruin also bears a striking resemblance to Rome, and I have no doubt that this is entirely intentional. Strangely though, I was also reminded of Tolkien’s Minas Tirith [which has its own citadel carved into a jutting cliff – one which Pippin scales much like the Sancti at the beginning of this novel]. But whilst it undoubtedly owes much to a number of real and literary locales, Ruin still manages to be very much its own place and it is strikingly realised by Toyne.
If I had one gripe, then it was with a subsidiary plot arc, involving a monk sent from Ruin to New York by the Abbott of the Sancti, which I didn’t feel added that much to the drive of the novel. And, on a completely unrelated note, I also noticed that characters kept “brushing” or “tucking” hair – which was more often than not described as “lank” [maybe they don’t have shampoo in Ruin] – behind their ears or out of their face. This really is a minimal thing but, rest assured, now that I’ve pointed it out you will notice it when you read the novel.