Sphinx - T.S. Learner - 14/01/10

Forget Dan Brown's breathless but unconvincing thrillers and check out a debut adventure novel with class written all over it...

Sphinx is a brilliantly atmospheric and apocalyptic tale of history, politics, greed, ambition, mysticism, magic and, yes, even the meaning of life!

A playwright, also noted for her short stories, Learner has turned her talents to novel writing and the result is a blockbuster which promises to be the pick of this year's crop of thrillers.

The story is set in the seething political cauldron of Alexandria in Egypt in 1977 where Presidents Sadat and Carter are seeking peace with Israel ... but the Arab nationalists are restless and 'even the snakes have ears.'

Marine archaeologist Isabella Warnock is hunting for an ancient artefact called the astrarium, a device thought to have calculated the movement of stars and shaped the destinies of kings and pharaohs.

Husband Oliver is an oil geologist, a man firmly rooted in the palpably real, and so he is increasingly cynical and fearful about his Italian wife's obsession with the astrarium and its mystical powers.

More worrying for him is her firm belief in the accuracy of a prediction by a mystic in Goa that her date of death is fast approaching...

During an illegal dive in Aboukir Bay, Isabella finds the astrarium but before she can surface, she is killed in an underwater earthquake and grief-stricken Oliver is left to keep the object safe.

What Oliver doesn't realise is just how significant the find is ... until good friend Barry Douglas, a maverick Aussie and marine expert, dates the magnetically-controlled astrarium to 1160BC or 'the time of frigging Moses' as he puts it.

This places it further back than even Isabella's reckoning and would force a complete reassessment of history ... a discovery that is priceless beyond imagination.

Just as he is getting to grips with Isabella's demise and the potential of the astrarium, a suspicious death forces him to confront the possibility that there are others willing to go to any lengths to get their hands on it.

And when Isabella's dark family connections to Italian fascism and dangerous ancient cults emerge, Oliver is catapulted into a world of conspiracy and academic rivalry in which old beliefs clash with modern ambition.

He must get the astrarium to safety or pay with his life...

Sphinx is a comprehensively researched novel written with energy, intelligence and style... from the science of oil exploration to the complex workings of mysticism and from the politics of Egypt to the history of ancient cults, Learner has created a magnificently worked story.

Full of exotic characters, vivid dialogue and cloaked in a compelling and brooding sense of destiny, Sphinx is a masterclass in thriller writing.

(Sphere, paperback, 6.99)