The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott

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The Crystal Skull by Manda Scott

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An ancient artefact needs to be found in order to save the world. Stop me if this starts to sound original...
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 400 Date: January 2008
Publisher: Bantam Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0593055700

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University lecturers Stella and Kit are celebrating their being married to each other for roughly forty-eight hours by going to try and find an AAII (that's an Ancient Artefact of Immeasurable Import) in a very unusual location. England. However when they get it the problems only start...

This AAII, the heart-stone, is a crystal skull, carved untold years ago by unknown hands with unremembered ability from a single stone of sapphire. It can communicate somehow with its owner, making them fall in cherished love for it, and bend the owner's will until that coincides with its own. If this doesn't work the skull is the most loathsome entity on the planet and must be destroyed at once. So how does the shadowy person, stealing the pair's research and trying to kill them, feel?

Four hundred years ago the skull was in the possession of Cedric Owen, who passes through a series of clichés on his own travels. Taught astrology by Elizabethan alchemist Dr John Dee, he fetches up in France, hiding with espionage skills from the religion-based anti-English loathing of the time. There he helps the Queen, Catherine de Medici in childbirth, and learns how to be a sawbones from Nostradamus, who tells Owen to set sail for the New World, and to those people who know a lot more about the skull's creation and reason for existence.

Can our modern heroes survive attacks on their lives and complete the task the skull demands of them? Can Owen's story survive all the name-dropping and provide us with more original characters and mystery? And what does everything have to do with the much-rubbished but still trendily-held theory that the Mayans predicted the end of our world for December 12, 2012? (Some Friday afternoon at the pub that will be... !)

For this sort of airport adventure the use of Britain as a setting is of course unusual and welcome, however little is made of it. The AAII has to fetch up somewhere, of course, so it might as well be here, especially when it is revealed there might be more of its kind. However it itself is a little underserved by the story it finds itself in. We can only feel relieved that all the code-breaking and cryptic clue-solving the couple have to go through are dabbled with in mere flashbacks, and it's noteworthy that the AAII is found so quickly. However there is really not much flavour to the heart-stone's 'life' - given that baddie aside, everybody that meets it is another academic at the very Cambridge college Owen goes on to found. Bede's, Cambridge might have been a much bigger piece of the puzzle, but instead is just a basic background.

Owen's story is actually more interesting in Europe, and gets bogged down and really not very interesting in New Spain, where everybody knows of the AAII's arrival, however hard Owen tries to keep it a secret. A further handicap to the plot is the fact that all the Owen abroad sequences are merely used to show him answering his own questions, which do not necessarily coincide with ours, and only pick up after quite a woolly middle third when he has to struggle to leave the legacy that Stella's determination and Kit's computer are then forced to wrestle with.

The heart-stone is always an object of interest, however, whether in the modern era or in the Elizabethan age when the height of modern science was to split a sunbeam with a prism.

As for the characters, I am reminded of the pair of Native American mosaics Owen finds. It is the one that is of basically drawn, stick-man drawings that appear to come to life but do not do so properly that I am referring to more than the lush, global picture of finesse and detail that the book intends to be.

Or does it? The notes on research and bibliography are convincing, for sure. But I certainly found no great narrative brilliance, and while the stories moved along together moderately well the jumps between the two seemed to be at random and with neither a good sense of rhythm nor cliff-hangers to incite us to read just a few more chapters. The book seems very restrained in making itself a certificate PG - the sex exceptionally is muted, and the violence similarly slight.

That said the book has its own website and some form of adventure game to coincide, and with this being a one-off with no sequels available it seems to be a reasonable fist of making a fun-for-all kind of romp. I did think it needed a little trimming, and a brighter spark involved in the action. But with it making a stall of it being set in Britain and (partly) in 2007 it works as a light read for an evening or two. With the authoress of the Boudica cycle at the helm it could well be picked up and run with by the media, in which case it might be an omnipresent home-grown hit.

Whether I think it deserves that or not will have little effect. I would still like to thank the publishers for sending this to the Bookbag to read. Especially, of course, as I've only got five years of book-reading left to me...

You might also enjoy A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott.

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