Headline | 2016, Pb 2017 | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
During the Second World War an allied ship was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Sierra Leone, Africa. Marine archaeologist Jack Howard and his friend and diving partner Costas have been hired to dive to its wreck, perilously perched on the edge of a continental rift, to search for its cargo – gold, tons of it. Jack, though, is interested in other things. He looks for clues to the past, artefacts that evoke lost ages, and there is something on this wreck that means far more to him than gold ever could.
It’s a dangerous dive, carried out in difficult circumstances, and it’s with relief that Jack and Costas return to their own great discovery – the remains of an ancient vessel off the coast of Cornwall. In it they find an extraordinary item, a fragment of amphora and someone who knew his ship was about to sink hurriedly scratched words on to it written in the language of the Phoenicians. Its message opens up a world of mysteries to Jack, recalling a voyage undertaken thousands of years ago by the greatest of Phoenician explorers, Hanno, which, legend has it, took him to the Chariot of the Gods.
Testament is the ninth historical adventure to feature Jack Howard and it is so good to see him again! His previous two adventures, Pharaoh and Pyramid, were closely tied together and drew Jack to Egypt. Egypt is now denied to Jack and so he must look somewhere else for the archaeological excitement he craves and in Testament we have a new story that stands alone well while continuing the progress of Jack’s extraordinary career.
As with all of the Jack Howard novels, I would argue that Testament is not a conventional thriller and I think that some readers who expect such a thing might be disappointed. Instead it is a high-quality adventure with thrills thrown in and the emphasis is firmly on the archaeological mystery, despite the dangers hurled at Jack and Costas by a succession of baddies. David Gibbins is a marine archaeologist himself and his expertise and experience endow these books with invaluable authenticity and detail. It is fair to say that some readers have criticised the series for the sections of lengthy exposition. But I love these sections. I was an archaeologist for years and I value the knowledge that David Gibbins brings to his books. I love the meticulous details. It makes the unbelievable believable. And this is further attested to by the outcome of some of the strands of the stories – not everything happens as you’d expect in a thriller. But in an archaeological mystery, not everything can be so conveniently wrapped up.
The story here is fascinating and the methods used to tell it are also well done. The novel moves between periods of history, including a deeply atmospheric and evocative section set in ancient Carthage and an equally intriguing episode set in Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Interspersed throughout are moments of intense thrills as Jack and Costas get closer to the truth. The diving sequences are marvellous.
My one issue with these novels is the use of coincidences. There are too many, and they are too big, for comfort. But this is no way mars my enjoyment of what is with no doubt at all my favourite archaeological and/or historical mystery series. I just can’t get enough of the Jack Howard adventures. I love the deep and sensitive appreciation of the past that fills their pages. Jack is a fascinating hero. Events might demand him to be an action hero during certain scenes in the books but he still appears mortal, fallible, normal. There isn’t another thriller hero like Jack Howard and I treasure him. I’ve said this about the Jack Howard series for years and it continues to be true – I can’t wait for more.