When the Author Note of a novel begins by listing citations from actual historical textbooks, then I know that I’m in for a good time. Well, I knew that I was anyway, since Bel Nemeton is a novel by Jon Black, one of the finest and imaginative new horror authors that I’ve come across in the genre in quite some time. But Bel Nemeton itself isn’t a horror novel, and that’s exactly why I chose to read and review it for this entry on the blog. Because at a time when I’m self-isolating and having breathing difficulties, all due to a global pandemic, reading horror books has suddenly lost some of its appeal. Not all of it, I hasten to add, and there will still be some horror reviews appearing on here; but at the moment I think I need to read (and review) some more upbeat and exciting titles to keep me in a positive mood. And what could be more upbeat or exciting than a perilous, high-stakes globetrotting adventure to uncover Merlin’s greatest treasure?
In the modern-day Middle East, carvings have been discovered that seem to bear descriptions of the mythological King Arthur and Merlin, Court Wizard, despite the seeming impossibility of such a thing being found. Academics swarm around the stone bearing the carving to investigate and analyse, but before they can get too far, it’s stolen by heavily-armed mercenaries, forcing scholar Dr. Vivian Cuinnsey to reluctantly work alongside treasure-hunter Jake Booker to pursue the mercenaries and recover the stone and its carvings. It was an intriguing-sounding plot, rather reminiscent of Matthew Reilly’s books, which were a staple of my teenage years, and I was eager to see what mythological and modern-day chaos Mr Black could conjure up.
From titles such as this that I’ve read over the years, there tends to be two groupings that they fall into: the first are those books that play fast and loose with the mythological elements that are integrated into the plot, based on little to no research and bending the mythology into whatever shape is required for the plot. Then there are the authors who have clearly done their research before they started writing, respecting the legends and folklore and using them carefully, merging them into the plot only when it makes sense and with as much care as possible. It becomes obvious from just the first few pages that Bel Nemetom clearly falls into the latter category. Skillfully using that knowledge, Black uses protagonist Dr Cuinnsey to guide us through the discovery of the stone and its inscriptions, drilling down into its language family and clearly and concisely laying out why a Brittonic language derived from Insular Celtic couldn’t possibly be present in the Middle East. It’s all done with a breezy yet engaging confidence, and really helps to ground the plot despite it’s clear fantasy elements and bring the reader along with the narrative. As a side note, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learnt about language roots and associated folklore by the time I’d finished Bel Nemeton; that’s not something that can be said of many books, and another indication of why Black is high on my list of new authors to watch closely, regardless of genre.
Black continues to sprinkle clues to keep us nailed to our seats as the page-count increases, and it becomes clear that the stone, the inscriptions and an accompanying dwelling are distinctly alien to the area they’ve been located. Like a moth to a flame, this leads to Cuinnsey travelling to the edges of the Middle East to investigate in person, meeting up with fellow archeologists and exploring the ruins that the stone was found in. We get some more fascinating insights into the archeological process, including excavation and conservation, and the spartan living conditions the academics reside in, in order to undertake their expeditions. Then comes the grand unveiling, a press conference that includes a surprise revelation, even to Cuinnsey: a tablet speaking of a great treasure, and a riddle containing the location of Myrddin’s tomb which could contain said treasure. But before she can examine it, armed thugs storm the press conference and attempt to steal the tablet, resulting in a thrilling and hair-raising chase across the city of Samarkand. After the tablet is lost again, Cuinnsey forms a desperate and tentative partnership with treasure hunter Jake Booker in order to start that globetrotting race that’s mentioned on the back-cover blurb.
Samarkand to Berlin, Berlin to Oxford, then onto more secretive locations in the search for Merlin’s final resting place and his fabled treasure, Black keeps the narrative moving at a fast but ultimately smooth pace, it always being clear where our protagonists are and for what purpose. Museums, archives, ancient documents revealing fragments of secrets that send Cuinnsey and Booker racing to another location in pursuit of the tablet: many of the genre tropes are present, but executed with such vigour, skill and genuine passion that it refreshes them and brings them to life once again. We also get treated to chapters from Myrddin’s perspective, following his travels throughout the known world, getting insight into his thoughts, personality and goals. Myrddin is an interesting and enigmatic character, and the chapters following his journey from Brittania across the known world and into parts unknown save by their inhabitants are some of the best parts of the novel. Black invokes a real sense of mystery that feels like it’s almost physically wrapped around the ancient, deeply knowledgable and infinitely incalculable druid; and it feels like an entire separate novel, perhaps even a series, could be based around Myrddin and his adventures and travails, of which we barely scratch the surface.
In addition to Cuinnsey and Myrddin, Jake Booker rounds out the trio of protagonists, serving as engaging and rough and ready secondary protagonist, a self-made millionaire turned treasure hunter; I appreciated Black playing against stereotype by having Booker have an entire company at his beck and call to facilitate the chase, rather than a penniless loner of the Indiana Jones type. It’s oddly refreshing, especially as the novel moves into its latter half and we get glimpses of a decidedly different Booker to the carefully-constructed exterior shown at the novel’s start. Finally, the trio are also accompanied by a host of colourful, attention-grabbing antagonists, rogues and bit players, from the delightfully Bond-like rogue general in Uzbekistan who helps launch the chase for the stone; to the secretive, obsessive archeologist who hires the mercenaries who have stolen the stone and its carving; and even. The whole cast is stuffed full of vivid and memorable personalities that avoid the pitfalls of two-dimensional writing, and their presence are one of the many reasons Bel Nemeton is such a great read.
I was quite honestly hooked with Bel Nemeton from the very first page, Black weaving a fast-paced, action-packed and surprisingly educating story that kept my eyes on the pages even when I had many other things I needed to be doing in my life. The characters practically spring off of the page fully formed, and Black deftly blends historical fact and mythological debate with close-quarters combat and a spirit of adventure that seems so sorely missing from many titles in the genre these days. It often felt like what the The Da Vinci Code should have been, if Dan Brown had been able to do more research and ground himself in reality, rather than entering into conspiracy theories and other strange concepts. As a bonus, the clear possibility of a sequel (or indeed sequels) only sweetens the deal when purchasing it. I thoroughly enjoyed Bel Nemeton, and cannot recommend it highly enough: for the last two days, it’s blend of action, adventure and mythology has helped to keep my spirits up during an incredibly difficult time in my life, and what more could I possibly ask for from a book?