There aren’t many authors I could name whose titles I would pick up and read automatically, regardless of title or back-cover blurb; there are only a very small handful I consider to be so talented in their writing, so evocative in their characterisation, so engaging with their plots, that I would read their works no matter the genre. Adam Baker, master of character-driven, nihilistic zombie novels; Jonathan Raab, who creates amazing Weird Horror fiction that intertwines conspiracy theories with a veteran’s criticism of the Military-Industrial complex; Josh Reynolds, able to turn his hand to sci-fi, fantasy and the Occult Detective Genres with an instinctive mastery. But alongside these well-established writers, I also rank one other person: an up and coming author who has already established himself across multiple genres, and created some of the best horror and supernatural fantasy fiction that I’ve ever read in all my years as reader and Reviewer. That is none other than Jon Black, and though he has, as yet, only written a handful of short stories and novels, he is someone who has deeply impressed me with his subtle and highly evocative prose and prodigious imagination, as well as an ability to conjure up fully-formed, three-dimensional characters that grab you from the very first page of a story. Black is truly one of the most talented authors I’ve ever read, and it’s hardly my opinion alone; he’s published by no less than 18thWall Productions, a fantastic publisher that has never released a title that has ever been anything less than stellar in terms of content, editing and especially illustration. They make a superb partnership, and I was therefore suitably thrilled to be informed that the publisher had recently released Black’s latest novel – Bel Nemeton: Caledfwlch. The intriguingly-named Caledfwlch is the sequel to 2018’s Bel Nemeton, which was a fast-paced, action-packed adventure that spanned the globe and entire millennia as academic Vivian Cuinnsey and treasure-hunter Jake Booker sought treasure belonging to the mythical warlock Merlin. It was a deeply impressive and hugely enjoyable novel that helped dispel the Covid blues with its relentless sense of adventure and mysticism, and I couldn’t wait to see what Black had written for the sequel.
An awe-inspiring prologue sets the epic tone of the novel, giving us the mystical history of a great Dragon’s Egg that crashed to earth in ancient Caledonia, and from which metal was mined to make two great swords. Entire centuries pass as weaponsmiths, druids and bards work together across the years to forge and bind these weapons, and then seal them away under magical protection, hidden until those who need them uncover them in later times. It’s an impressive start to the book, and one that both grabs your attention, and also lays out the overarching atmosphere of the novel. Black then deftly interweaves two separate but interrelated story threads, set thousands of years apart. In one period, court sorcerer Myrddin supervises the progress of his mentee, Arthur, and the young royal’s progress in trying to unite numerous tribes and political rivals behind him in order to rule Britain; not only are there normal political and cultural issues to overcome, but there is also Myrddin’s mysterious Great Work, an immense project that threatens to collapse into ruin before it can be finished. In the second thread, Vivian Cuinnsey struggles with the realisation that Arthur, Myrddin and many other mythical figures were all too real, even as she presents tours through an academic exhibition in St. Petersburg demonstrating that reality, filled with objects found as a result of her adventures in the original novel. (As an aside, Black does an excellent job of summarising the previous novel in these opening pages, without ever seeming to be info-dumping or overwhelming the reader; it’s a difficult skill to master, and one I wish more authors could achieve). But before she can further consider the realities of the exhibit, or her complex relationship with Booker, explosions and gunfire signal that her adventuring days aren’t yet over. A strange ninja-like warrior armed with a Roman Gladius breaks into her exhibition for unknown reasons, and escapes despite being confronted by Vivian; the Russian authorities are evasive, and something seems even more amiss than a violent intruder wearing a strange suit and carrying archaic weaponry. Before too long, Vivian and Booker are back to their globe-trotting ways in pursuit of two mythical blades; and a thousand years before, Arthur struggles against threats both external and internal to try and unite the warring tribes under his leadership. What, exactly, links an ancient blade with a museum exhibit a millennia later, and why are teams of lethal mercenaries being sent to capture or kill Vivian as she seeks the blade? As the novel’s two plotlines progress, we’re treated to kidnapping, theft, mysterious underwater tombs and secretive sword-fighting societies, alongside alternating chapters describing Arthur’s epic journey to secure his own dragonblade as a symbol to unite the warring tribes of Britain once and for all behind him.
As the two plots move forward, intertwining in some intriguing and deftly impressive ways, Black weaves a fascinating, complex and multi-layered historical mystery, managing even to outdo his previous work in the original Bel Nemeton. Somehow there’s even more depth, character and research in this sequel than its predecessor, and yet at no point does it feel overwhelming; each chapter feels energised and vital to the plot, never once succumbing to pointless side-plots or padding, creating a streamlined and relentlessly engaging thriller. Black expertly maintains an air of mystery and intrigue as the plot is propelled forward, aided by his ability to deftly blend fiction and historical fact to create something new and tremendously exciting. Much of this is achieved by making the focus of the novel less about the relationship between Booker and Vivian, as in the first novel, and more about Vivian’s struggle to deal with the new knowledge and redefined historical subjects that she has uncovered. Indeed, for much of the first half of the novel, Vivian finds herself alone, armed only with her knowledge, courage, and academic contacts, and in the process Black deftly expands on her character, creating an even more in-depth and subsequently engaging protagonist as a result. I really came to like, and even admire, Vivian and her determination to pursue the mysterious swordsman and find out the truth behind Arthur’s mythical blade.
At the same time, Black’s decision to make Myrddin the protagonist of the historical chapters, rather than Arthur, also allows him to develop a great deal of subtle and engaging world-building, not only fleshing out the beginnings of the Camelot mythology, but also the nature of the Pictish culture that dominates the entire novel. The exploration of that mysterious and long-forgotten culture allows Black to continue the fantastical mystical imagery that he began to develop in the first novel, bringing Arthur and his court to life with a keen eye for detail and characterisation that I’ve rarely seen in other Arthurian fiction. He imbues it with a passion and energy I’ve rarely seen elsewhere; but also tempered by a detailed understanding of the historical and cultural nature of the period, and the demands that would have been placed on Arthur even if he had possessed the wisdom and magic of Myrddin. It all makes for a hugely entertaining novel, and there were times when I wish Black had been able to write two separate novels – one focused on Vivian and Booker, and one on Arthur and Myrddin – such is his talent and passion. If he does ever decide to write a stand-alone Arthurian tale, then I’ll be elbowing my way through the crowd to be the first to read it.
I can’t close out this review without discussing the incredible academic work and research that Black has conducted, and which he weaves throughout the entire novel to create such a lively and engaging backstory for the Pictish culture, and the mysterious Caledfwlch. While there are many historical thrillers that try and create an illusion of historical knowledge and research, it’s usually facile and shallow, even when it doesn’t dive into the incoherent mysticism of the kind popularised by Dan Brown. By comparison, Black’s research is firmly bedded in academic knowledge and research, to the extent that (to my utter delight) he once again includes an Additional Research section at the end of the novel, a God-send to readers interested in researching the many fascinating topics Black used as the foundation for his worldbuilding. And while the idea of entire sections of chapters being dedicated to Pictish language and culture might cause involuntary shudders in readers familiar with the sort of codswallop iterated by Brown and co., I can marvel at the fact that these sections are some of the most engaging parts of the novel; and while that may seem a strange statement given the gun fights, fist fights and other dangerous activities that exist in the book, Black’s passion shines through in these sections. It’s the same for chapters on painting methods or forging blades – it comes across as a lively narrative that’s both educational for the reader, and also successful in deftly driving the plot forward. It’s a truly astonishing achievement by Black, and one of the many reasons why the Bel Nemeton series is such an amazing read.
Bel Nemeton: Caledfwlch is an absolute triumph for Jon Black and 18thWall Productions – an intelligent, lighting-fast and immensely entertaining globetrotting thriller, one that skilfully blends together a fast-paced modern-day treasure hunt with a brilliant Arthurian adventure spanning the early days of Camelot, all the while also managing to educate as much as it entertains. That’s something I’ve also never come across before in any genre, and a distinct sign of just how talented a writer Jon Black is; Black has created his own subgenre while also managing to effortlessly mastering multiple mainstream genres simultaneously. There’s a huge amount of content packed into the pages of Bel Nemeton: Caledfwlch, with action and thrills on every single page, and I genuinely cannot wait to see what Black comes up with for the inevitable sequel. But on a broader note, the novel is also a demonstration of just how damn good a writer Jon Black is regardless of the genre, his stock rapidly rising, and it can surely only be a matter of time before he makes an even greater impact in the Horror and Arthurian genres. Black is an epic writer of epic stories, and I’ll be following him wherever he goes.