After the Da Vinci Code, there was quite a market created for historical thrillers. Layton Green takes this now rather cliche formula and turns it on it's head, giving us a dark, gritty story of blood sacrifice and ancient evil in his book The Summoner.
Dominic Grey is a member of the Diplomatic Security Service. He is a man with a past-abused by his father as a boy, he ran away from home at 16 and has spent his adult life traveling the world, learning jiu-jitsu and taking a number of dangerous jobs. He is called in to investigate after a US diplomat disappears during a religious ceremony in the bush. Along with his minder, Nya Mushumbu, they investigate, only to find that there appear to be magical forces at work. Viktor Radek, a religious phenomenologist and expert on cults is brought in to help them understand the forces that they are dealing with. Thwarted at every turn by the political and bureaucratic nightmare that is modern-day Zimbabwe, Grey and Nya soon find themselves working outside of the law-and facing an enemy who seems to have supernatural powers.
When I was approached to review this book, I was very intrigued by the premise. It seemed to take the historical thriller genre in another direction, focusing on ancient religions and some of their more sensational practices and placing them in the 21st century. The resulting conflict between modern man's rational thought and ancient "supernatural" occurrences becomes a central feature of the mystery. The mystery was not just what happened to the diplomat, but whether what appeared to happen could in fact be real.
As I read I could literally see this playing out as a movie in my mind, something that is not always true of the books I read. I think that this would make an excellent movie. It is fast-paced, has some truly gruesome scenes of ju-ju blood rituals, and characters that radiate evil rather strongly. While I enjoyed the story quite a bit, it did have some of the same problems I see with Dan Brown's writing. Prof. Radek spends paragraphs on exposition, which can start to feel like a history lesson. But Layton does a better job of placing them in the action. Radek is not hurriedly explaining the history of ju-ju as they are literally running for their lives, but during moments in between the action. He also makes them a bit shorter, which helps the flow of the book. Speaking of the flow, while it was well-paced, I felt that there were areas that could have used more development. Unless you had pretty good background knowledge about Zimbabwe some of the cultural references would be troubling, and a little bit more information about the Diplomatic Security Service, how it works, etc...might have been useful. I think all in all this is a good start to what is going to be a series of historical thrillers about Dominic Grey. I look forward to seeing how the characters develop over time, and how Green's writing grows as he continues the series.
(Thanks to Mr. Green for providing me a review copy of the book!)