Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Summoner by Layton Green

The author provided me a review copy of The Summoner. It is available as a paperback and e-book from Amazon and as an e-book from Barnes & Noble.

Summary: Dominic Grey's future in diplomatic security is uncertain. He has the career killing compulsion to follow his conscience not to mention a white knight impulse to right wrongs. His "...moral compass guides him far more that partisan dictates."

Now stationed in Harare Zimbabwe (Zim), Dominic gets an assignment that could save him from "protecting spoiled diplomatic kids from mountain gorillas." William Addison, close friend to the ambassador, disappeared from a Yoruba religious ceremony out in the bush. Sensitive diplomatic issues between the US and Zimbabwe mean that Grey can't act alone and he is paired with Nya Mashumba, a beauriful and emotionally distant representative of the Zimbabwe government.

At the ambassador's request, Viktor Radic is brought into the investigation. Radic is a professor of religious phenomology and expert in cults. Apparently Addison isn't the only one to have disappeared recently. Ten others have disappeared under similar circumstances and all within eight months since a babalayo (Juju priest) arrived from Nigeria.

Soon Dominic, Nya, and Viktor are facing off against the owner of a dodgy night club, the Nigerian Cultural Ataché who has an unhealthy interest in Nya, and a mysterious religious leader who's powers seem to defy reason.

Analysis: This is not a supernatural thriller so readers who dislike that genre should not be put off. Viktor Radik sets the approach to the subject when says of his field of expertise:
I observe the practitioner as he's experiencing the alleged phenomena, and analyze the effects. I'm concerned with how the experience impacts the devotee, not the veracity of the event itself.
At the same time, readers of supernatural thrillers will find much to interest them in the details about how a charismatic leader can affect followers perceptions and Radic's discussions on superstition and religion. It isn't difficult to find actual examples of the effects of such phenomena on people. In May, there was a story from Zimbabwe about a man accused of supernatural rape. A search of witchcraft in Zimbabwe also pulls up stories of curses and demonic possession.

I enjoyed The Sumoner and recommend it to readers who enjoy an intelligent thriller. It has the ingredients that make a thriller enjoyable to me: story, characters, action, and location.

The plot, a disappearance under mysterious circumstances, is interesting and moved forward by nicely placed and executed scenes of action and tension building.

The characters have backstories and personalities that engaged me and are plausible within the context of the story. I can believe that they can exist. I wouldn't have minded if Nya hadn't been stunningly beautiful which can be an overworked thriller trope (eg the Bond girls) but it is an important plot element and motivator for some of the action so it isn't a negative here. Viktor Radic reminds me of a 19th Century scholar/adventurer/man of action like Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger and he is a nice balance with the other characters.

I don't want to give away details of the action scenes but I will say that they were well spaced, not overdone, and contributed to the story by establishing the abilities of the characters and giving them realistic obstacles to overcome. The big finale was a excellent payoff for everything leading up to it.

This is the first story I've read set in Zimbabwe. While the author isn't from Zim, his wife is and he has lived there. He doesn't make overt political statements about the state of the country but still conveys the atmosphere of living there. Green's empathy is for the Zimbabwean people, the government and diplomates in residence...not so much. One of Nya's jobs with the government is to assess areas of Harare eligible for urban cleanup and that a government could do that to its people is sobering.

Geographically, I learned about the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe from 1100 to 1450 AD. The cover of the book is based on an area of the Hill Complex (see links below). According to Wikipedia, the ruins were a source of controversy because it was inconvenient for the government of Rhodesia for native Zimbabweans to have created such a city that might have housed as many as 18,000 people.
Wikipedia article on Great Zimbabwe Ruins
Google search for images of Great Zimbabwe Hill Complex

The next Dominic Grey novel may not be set in Africa but I am curious where the author takes the theme. Prior to reading The Summoner I didn't realize that I was interested in phenomenology and I'm looking forward to the next book.