Saturday, 31 August 2013

Shattered Icon, by Bill Napier

Bill Napier first came to my attention when I read The Lure, reviewed here two years ago, which I said was "one of the most thoughtful, realistic and exciting first contact novels I've ever read." Shattered Icon (also sold as Splintered Icon) is the fourth of his books I've read.

As is often the case with Napier's novels, there are two interleaved stories. The principal one is set in the present day and concerns the search for an icon which is claimed to contain a piece of the "True Cross" on which Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified. The key to the search is an ancient encrypted manuscript that is believed to contain the clues needed to find the icon. This tells the story of the British 16th century Roanoke expedition to found a settlement in North America, as seen through the eyes of a young crew-member of one of the ships.

The protagonist of the main story is Harry Blake, a former soldier now working as a dealer in antiquarian books and manuscripts, who is asked to research the background to the Roanoke manuscript to determine its authenticity, a search which takes him to Jamaica. On the way he is aided by two young women, one a historian the other being the owner of the manuscript, and is opposed by some shadowy but ruthless forces.

So far we seem to be in Dan Brown territory, but Napier is a very different author. Apart from being a better writer, as a professional scientist he believes in getting his facts straight and his speculations realistic. His plots are throughly researched, the account of the Roanoak expedition being thoroughly convincing as well as a gripping adventure; there is some intriguing detail concerning early encryption systems and some of the finer points of radio carbon dating; and a summary of the legal situation with regard to the ownership of such an icon is both thought-provoking and amusing. I do enjoy being informed at the same time as being entertained.

Napier is something of a cross-over author, his plots ranging from SF through techno-thrillers to more solidly based myseries like this one. There are no fantasy or sf elements in Shattered Icon beyond the icon itself, but it is still a worthwhile read for those who enjoy such tales, being both exciting and educational. As usual the characterisation is somewhat sketchy, but it is adequate to carry the story. Recommended.

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