Whereas their previous novel, 'The Forbidden Book' https://ncolloff.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-forbidden-book.html began with a bomb desecrating a church that itself contains a desecrating image of the Prophet Muhammed, this second novel from the partnership of Joscelyn Godwin and Guido Mina di Sospiro starts with a more peaceful 'explosion' in an archeological discovery that offers the possibility of re-writing our knowledge of pre-history and of religion - a golden pomegranate in which is sealed two entheogenic substances, carbon-dated to a time when the Mediterranean was land and Malta was the center of a long-lasting paleolithic culture whose monuments comprise one of its attractions to this day.
The discovery is made by Monica, an ambitious American archaeologist, and her eccentric billionaire sponsor, Sebastian Pinto. It is a discovery that will trigger Sebastian's murder and Rafael, his son, and Monica's search for the killers as they, in turn, are pursued by 'they' the anonymous forces of evil that haunt the book.
One of Malta's other, more contemporary attractions is being, first, part of the European Union and, second, within striking distance of the African mainland; and, thus, a beacon for human trafficking as people venture all, sadly including their lives, to reach the prospect of improving those lives. If Islamic terrorism is the backdrop to 'The Forbidden Book', this sad trade provides a backdrop to this mystery; and, its opening chapter.
But this no ordinary murder mystery though it has all the requisite devices - false clues, more than one murder, secret passages, chases and near misses, and an appropriate denouement where the evil perpetrators are exposed because it, also, contains several strands of the esoteric, woven in with all the scholarly credentials that the authors represent especially given Godwin's status as a major scholar of the Western esoteric tradition.
Here we have nudges towards Atlantis, doses of the alchemical quest, and, most significantly of all, the proposed role of entheogenic substances in the propagation of divine participation and both sacred and human, all too human, insight. It would be a plot spoiler to say how this last dimension is skillfully woven into the plot only to say that it is instrumental in exposing the evil at hand. It would, also, be right to say that it exposes a tension between esoteric, hidden traditions, and what we take for the exoteric, traditional channels of religious faith.
One of the fault lines, unresolved in the book as elsewhere, is between these patterns of revelation - and direct participation in what is held to be the divine and the normalizing bounds of dogma and morality. Is the latter simply a bid for ecclesial control, and manipulation, of the sacred or is it a gift in the economy of things, a necessary modulator of truth, truth that may need to be withstood, borne, rather than simply understood? We may come back from the mysteries transformed, born again, but after the ecstasy comes the laundry, the social demands of everydayness, the polishing of the stone of enlightenment into a continuity of refreshed life. Or is that the delusion from which gnosis ought to free us?
Indeed the book pivots around the existential contrast between a love that discovers itself by realizing that the lover thinks more of the beloved than of themselves, a first-time revelation for the bearer; and, an evil that imagines its bearer is above others, entitled to its given purposes, able to sacrifice others to that end. How this existential reality plays out against the vistas opened up by revelation is one of the intriguing thought experiments of the book.
Thus, a book to be enjoyed at multiple levels from whodunnit to who are we really?