Book review: The Map by T.S. Learner

Mystery, history, war and mysticism are always a potent mix but place them in the capable hands of thriller writer T.S.Learner and they become a work of pure alchemy.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 26th January 2012, 6:00 am

Her debut, Sphinx, was a best-seller and now The Map charts the same adventurous course with an intriguing and time-hopping tale of secret scrolls, spies, supernatural sorcery and sabotage.

Add to this a dangerous post-World War Two landscape ravaged by the fall-out from six years of bitter conflict and Cold War skulduggery, and the stage is set for escapist reading heaven.

And always expect the unexpected from this classy author whose talent for crisp prose and clever characterisation is matched only by her sixth sense for sensational plotlines.

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In 1613, Shimon Luiz de Luna, a young Spanish Jewish physic fleeing the Inquisition, is found guilty of witchcraft, despite a direct plea to King James I, and is sentenced to burn at the stake at Tyburn gallows in London.

Before he finally surrenders to the flames and the pain, a young pregnant woman holds up a pendant assuring him that his secret discovery and his treasure remain safe.

At Oxford in 1953, classicist August Winthrop, an American who fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, is asked by his dying best friend and former brigade comrade Jimmy van Peters to return an ancient chronicle to a Basque family in Franco’s Spain.

Intrigued but alarmed by the knowledge that returning to Spain will risk both his life and possible arrest, August begins investigating the scrolls and discovers they are linked to the mysterious murder of a famous Basque woman freedom fighter known as ‘La Leona’ in 1945.

Soon he is drawn into a web of complicated politics, loyalties and betrayals in dangerous Spanish territory, and embarks on a quest for Shimon’s hidden treasure.

Following the clues in the chronicle, which include archaic cabbalistic symbols and the hidden, magical meanings of certain plants, August is led on a journey through war-torn Europe and a series of ancient mazes with the power to change the world.

Pursued by a rogue CIA agent who has killed in the past in his desperate hunt for the chronicle, and helped by a beautiful but troubled Basque woman, August must also outwit a ruthless band of occultists, and MI5 operatives who have become convinced that he is a Soviet agent out to sabotage a military pact between Spain and the USA.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s there the task of translating ancient codes, deciphering deadly riddles, unlocking age-old secrets and unearthing the truth behind a much more recent atrocity before time runs out...

Fast-moving and exciting, The Map will take you on a rollicking, rollercoaster journey.

(Sphere, paperback, £6.99)