I have to admit that ever since Dan Brown seemed to revolutionise the Historical Thriller genre, I’ve become extremely fond of these Uncover-A-Long-Lost-Treasure-That-Will-Change-The-World-As-We-Know-It type books; they’ve even become a sort of guilty pleasure. Released in 2012, The Istanbul Puzzle comes from Irish writer, Laurence O’Bryan, who attempts to add his own unique voice to the mix, by introducing Sean Ryan, who’s dragged into a sinister terrorist plot when he is summoned to Turkey to identify the body of his dead colleague. Beheaded by a known terrorist group and the video uploaded onto YouTube, Sean finds himself urging to find out more … and so begins The Istanbul Puzzle.
As Sean delves deeper into what his co-worker was working on inside the ancient temple of Hagia Sophia, he is joined on his quest by British diplomat, Isabel Sharp, who suspects something more sinister is afoot. The quest leads them around this atmospheric and busy city, into the depths of the ancient temple itself and even find themselves underground in old World War II bunkers that predate the event by centuries. It’s classic adventure with a modern vibe and a lethal virus thrown in to spice things up even more.
What stands out, pretty much from the off, is how much detail the author goes into when describing the old city of Istanbul. It’s extremely atmospheric and full of character, which adds ounces of realism into a genre that often likes to mix factual history with fictional treasures. And what also impresses, is how not only does O’Bryan go into visual detail, he adds smells and sounds to his descriptions too, which not only adds to the credibility, but also gives us readers a fully three dimensional world – we almost don’t need to visit the city ourselves.
I have to also admit, I loved his protagonist, Sean Ryan. He’s a man on a mission. He’s not an expert in crime, or ancient symbols, or an FBI agent with super fighting abilities (like we often see in these types of books) but is a man who wants to discover the truth. He won’t stand for less and that’s admirable; it automatically draws us to connect with Sean and follow him on his journey. He’s also a troubled protagonist too; a widower who failed to discover the truth behind his wife’s death, which as you can imagine, only fuels the fire more to hunt out the truth when his co-worker, Alek, is involved. I didn’t think I would, but I also fell for his female lead, Isabel Sharp, too. She’s intelligent, organised and ultimately believable. She doesn’t rush into situations, just for purpose sake, but admits early on that if anything is to be discovered, she needs help. This isn’t a story with maiden-in-distress story plot, but it’s realistic in terms of human capabilities. When the main characters grab you like these two do, it only urges you to read more.
Where the book really succeeds, is the historical and religious arc surrounding the mysterious manuscript. It isn’t original, but it’s believable and that’s the selling point here. Where some of his contemporaries can sometimes speculate and give Wikipedia style explanations mixed in with explosive action, O’Bryan goes for a more subtle approach, which delicately reveals to us the historical past and turmoil of a city that goes from one religion to another. It’s handled delicately and properly and gives us time to register the importance of the facts before moving on to more action.
The adventure isn’t half bad either. The real stand out moment is when Sean Ryan and Isabel Sharp find themselves underneath Hagia Sophia and have to escape the maze of underground tunnels to evade capture by the terrorist group. It’s a mix of dusty, tight tunnels and holes, underground rivers that hide beneath the water, flesh eating eels, which proves to be an extremely exciting read.
There are so many pluses, where The Istanbul Puzzle is concerned – the evil and psychotic nature of his villains are captivating. In this type of novel you really do need hardcore baddies, because not only does it add brilliant tension, it also gives us another reason to get behind our heroes. The constant switching of first-person to third-person (albeit hard to get used to, to begin with) actually adds nice pace. The third-person gives us a chance to witness other characters and their stories, whilst the first-person allows us to connect more personally and emotionally to Sean. It’s a nice touch.
It’s got to be said though that The Istanbul Puzzle is far from perfect. One of the biggest quibbles I have with it, is the very short sentences that seem overly simple at times. You can’t expect deep literary descriptions in this genre of book, it would simply disrupt the flow, but sometimes in here, you plead for a little more. There are points where the structure of the sentences are very The cat sat on the mat. Then it went to the shops. It bought Milk. It really does come alive when the historical detailing of Istanbul is revealed, but when the action occurs it reverts to the short sentence structuring and it’s something that needs rethinking I think.
Another let down is the threat of this plague that threatens to wipe out the majority of the human population, because of our dependence on antibiotics. It’s an interesting and current concept, one that deserves much more focus. You can get the picture of this threat quite early on, especially with some of the shorter chapters dedicated to other characters, but when it actually comes to it, it is rather quickly rounded off at the end of the novel. It’s quite anticlimactic, which is a shame really because there was promise there.
Then there is this discover of this ancient manuscript that asks so many questions, which sadly reveals no answers. I’m not sure if this manuscript will feature in the sequel, The Jerusalem Puzzle, but there is a good emphasis put on this manuscript that leaves you wanting to know more. If I was to be honest, I think this is a story of one man’s quest to discover the truth about the beheading of his friend, with elements of history and terrorism thrown in to heighten the story. Perhaps it was marketed wrong. I mean on the front of the book the tagline is: A Brutal Murder. An Ancient Temple. A Long-Lost Treasure. When this treasure never really amounts to anything substantial in terms of revealing to us readers, the secrets that lay inside, it’s actually disappointing.
The Istanbul Puzzle has its setbacks, but on the whole it is a riveting and thoughtful adventure, where its protagonist, Sean Ryan, takes centre stage. He’s a man on a mission to discover the truth and it’s a story of acceptance and emotional progression too. He never really moved on when the devastating news of his wife’s death came, and here we see a man accept the past so he can move on in the present. It has moments of fascinating revelation and good adventure scenes. It certainly has promise and with its gripping characters, I’ll be passing on to its sequel straight away. Perhaps, Laurence O’Bryan is wrongly compared to the likes of Dan Brown. It’s a novel that, perhaps, has been released a little late into the genre’s life, because I could see this being very popular back when these historical thrillers were the in thing. If you love Sam Bourne and Raymond Khoury novels, then you will most certainly find enough in here to keep you highly satisfied.
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