‘The secret that will shake the world’ is the tagline to Simon Toyne’s 2011 novel Sanctus, itself part one of the Sancti trilogy. The plot outline immediately places it firmly in Dan Brown-holy-conspiracy-territory. A monk throws himself to his death from the oldest inhabited place on the face of the earth, a mountainous citadel in the historic (but fictional) Turkish city of Ruin. This act, witnessed by the entire world thanks to the marvels of modern media, causes the cowled and mysterious fanatics within the citadel to take extreme measures to protect a millenia-old secret. The Sancti, as this ancient monastic order are called, are the custodians of one of the greatest secrets (some would say cover-ups) in human history – one which, if it ever got out, would change everything, for everyone, everywhere. This intriguing set-up, coupled with a suitably ominous cover, is what probably attracted most people to Sanctus (which topped the bestseller lists when it was published) in the first place. It certainly worked on me, despite my somewhat disappointing experiences with similar sub-Dan Brown fare like the Templar Legacy, The Sacred Scroll and The Atlantis Code. The question is, was Sanctus just more of the same?
Simon Toyne’s explanation for the inspiration behind Sanctus is an interesting one. It’s said that, after a sleepless night crossing the English channel on a storm battered midnight ferry, he and his family abandoned a planned eight-hour drive to their new home, and limped instead to the city of Rouen in search of a hotel. It was the eerie sight of the sharp spire of Rouen Cathedral piercing the pre-dawn sky that gave birth to the fictional citadel in Sanctus. Certainly the town of Ruin itself, as well as the secretive sect of creepy monks hiding within its mountainous citadel is a successful creation. As a reader you quickly accept that Ruin is a real place. Indeed, the start of the novel is generally top-notch, with its interesting juxtaposition of a monk desperately trying to escape the clutches of his fanatical brethren within the citadel, and the more ordinary lives of its other main characters, including a New York reporter and a Ruin police officer. Hanging heavily over everything at this point (and for most of the rest of the novel) is the ‘Sacrament’ – the name that everyone gives the secret that the Sancti are hiding. And that’s the problem.
My main issue is: can you really base an entire novel on a secret and its big reveal? In one sense I suppose you can say yes, and point to any number of popular detective or mystery/conspiracy novels as evidence. If this type of storytelling was not successful then Agatha Christie would never have had a career, let alone Dan Brown and his imitators. The trouble is, for me, there’s very little to recommend Sanctus after its atmospheric and portentous opening. Although the start was compelling, I quickly lost interest as the characters failed to grab my imagination, the story got increasingly unbelievable and the writing was below par. There is no real development in terms of plot and character and, to be honest, Toyne could probably have skipped straight from chapter 4 or 5 (there are over a hundred in all) to the end without really losing anything. There are several increasingly pointless interludes involving characters who never appear again, ridiculous pseudo-‘scientific’ or ‘religious’ scenes which make no sense, several potentially interesting clues which go nowhere and, worst of all for a book that pins itself on tantalizing with the prospect of a big reveal, a corny and senseless end ‘revelation’. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone but suffice to say that in my opinion it just isn’t worth the labour involved in getting there!
For all his detractors, I have to say that I thought Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a far better read, with a far more plausible religious secret/conspiracy at its heart. But for me, if you’re really interested in this sort of thing, Labyrinth by Kate Mosse is probably by far and away the best example of this genre. Her research into the Cathars of the 12/13 century Languedoc region of France is accurate, historically and theologically, and she weaves this expertly into her novel. Best of all she never forgets that for many readers the most important things are still plot, character development and good writing. Having a mystery at the heart of a novel is no bad thing – for a writer not to have the basic ability to tell a story, however, is quite unforgivable!