Sarah Weston is an English archaeologist, leading the excavation of a settlement in the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Assum. When she follows a lead up into the highlands, she literally falls upon a tomb, its cave walls covered in inscriptions, written in an obscure dialect. From that moment, Sarah is lost, unable to focus on her official project and instead obsessed by uncovering the identity of the man buried in the rock. Her University despatches American anthropologist Daniel Madigan to keep her on track but he too is won over by the mystery and when a high-ranking government official, the director of antiquities, warns her off the rumour grows that what Sarah has found is the revered and lost Coptic Tenth Saint. As for the inscriptions, they reveal a prophecy, foretelling the end of the world. This would be easier to dismiss if it weren’t for the fact that the teeth of the entombed early Christian saint appear to show signs of dental treatment not from our past but from our future.
There is more than one story in The Tenth Saint. Sarah and Daniel’s hunt for clues and the dangerous adventure into which this leads them is presented alongside the tale of Gabriel, a man found in the deserts of Arabia and sheltered and fostered by a Bedouin tribe for many years. His journey with the Bedouin, slowly transforming himself into a tribe member despite his pale skin and light hair, helps turn The Tenth Saint into a very special and unusual thriller.
Sarah Weston is a fascinating heroine, flawed and troubled but brave and strong. While Sarah’s aristocratic background and archaeological habits make her all too comparable with Lara Croft, this similarity becomes something of a tribute to Sarah as the novel continues. She is immensely likeable, not least because she is realistically bad tempered at times, and she is vulnerable. It’s hard not to gather a keen sense of her mortality. The scrapes that Sarah gets into, or the illnesses she suffers, aren’t easily shrugged off. Likewise her relationship with Daniel has a certain frisson to it (this is a thriller after all), but it’s not plain sailing by any means.
The mystery is an excellent one with an unusual twist on the secret inscription motif. Its deciphering leaves a trail of corpses and near misses and is complicated to no end by unfathomable twists, not least of which is a 14th-century manuscript in Paris. The result of the hunt and the resolution of the puzzle are completely satisfying and extremely traumatic to read! This is a novel to keep you up, not least because you know from the very beginning just how appalling the consequences could be. It is a great puzzle and very clever.
History, mystery and science combine here so well. But what gives The Tenth Saint a real edge is D.J. Niko’s insight into life in the desert. Gabriel’s story feels so authentic you can almost feel the heat on your face and the sand under your feet. The Bedouin characters are wonderfully realised as is the effort of Gabriel to integrate himself into this group, paralleled by the generosity and perseverance of his adopted family. It’s superbly done. And so too are the archaeological scenes. I dug in the Middle East myself and this book brings back some memories and rings true.
While there are elements at the very beginning of the book that remind the reader that this is a debut novel, D.J. Niko soon hits her stride. I was completely absorbed by it, to the extent that the mystery thriller element, pageturning as it is, became almost secondary to the pleasure I took in the author’s creation of the characters and the setting of them in their worlds.
I was so enamoured of the The Tenth Saint that I immediately followed it by reading D.J. Niko’s second novel The Riddle of Solomon. If there had been a third I’d have read that straightaway, too.
I have been lucky enough to ask D.J. Niko some questions about The Tenth Saint and those will be posted in a couple of days.