(2011) Manda Scott, Bantam Press, pbk, £7.99, 539pp, ISBN 978-0-857-50082-3
The inspirations for this story are firstly the prediction by the Mayan calendars that the world (or the current World Age) will end on the 21st of December 2012, and secondly that in various museums and collections around the world are a number of skulls carved out of crystal. The author weaves her work of fiction around the premise that there are thirteen of these special skulls and that they were specially made in ancient times so that, when used together at the right moment in the future, they might help avert the oncoming end of the world, or at least ensure that the next World Age takes a better direction than it might otherwise.
As the story opens, it is the spring of 2007 and Dr. Stella Cody is enjoying her second day of marriage to Dr. Kit OíConnor, a researcher at Bedeís College, Cambridge. She is leading them on a confined crawl through the earth in the extensive cave system under Ingleborough Fell in the Yorkshire Dales. She is a dedicated caver and is in her element whilst he, on the other hand, is searching for an undefined something, rumoured to have been hidden in Tudor times by Cedric Owen.
As a young man, Cedric Owen was a Physician, studying and practicing at Bedeís College, before voyaging abroad and making his considerable fortune. He left this fortune to the college to ensure its financial future along with thirty years of immaculately kept ledgers, an academic treasure trove in itself. Recent research by Kit and Stella into the ledgers has discovered hidden ciphers, one of which is a poem seeming to give the instructions for finding an item hidden in the cathedral of the earth, whatever or wherever that may be. Cross-referencing to other documents, Kit figures that Cedric was referring to Gaping Ghyll and its associated caves.
Thus they find themselves entering a large, hitherto undiscovered cavern. Interpreting the instructions within the poem, they find hidden under the water at the base of a waterfall a blue crystal skull. It seems somehow to talk to Stella as she places it in her backpack. Making their tortuous way out they become aware that they are being followed through the darkness by a menacing other person. Whilst Stella climbs above the path to avoid this stranger, Kit continues onwards, feigning the both of them. Seeing that the stranger has passed, Stella descends back to the narrow ledge they were following and creeps forward until she comes out in the main caves but there is no sight Kit or the stranger. Returning to the car she realises Kit is missing and raises the alarm. The Cave Rescue team arrive and backtrack their route, finding that Kit had fallen from the ledge and is four hundred feet below, floating in the water that had broken his fall; he is alive, but only just.
Kitís injuries prove to be quite bad; it is not the broken bones that worry the doctors so much as the damage to his brain, it may be many years, if ever, before he is fully recovered. They also report that the injury to his head is not consistent with catching it on a rocky outcrop, as first thought by the Cave Rescue team, but has been caused by a strong blow to the head by a blunt instrument. It seems the mysterious stranger was determined to steal the crystal skull, or at least to stop it being taken.
The story is very much two stories, that of Cedric Owen and then that of Stella Cody. Letís start with Cedricís. He is the last of a long line of keepers of the blue heart-stone, as he calls it. He is a 'modern' sort of doctor, believing in science rather than mumbo-jumbo. He is aware of the properties of the skull and that it helps him treat his patients. Unfortunately there are others who know of the skull and would have it and its powers for themselves. His mother died defending it and he knows that all too soon he might be arrested for witchcraft and also die in its cause. To protect both it and himself, he leaves Bedeís College and makes his way to Paris, where his medical skills soon bring him to the attention of the Queen. Thus he is introduced to Michel de Nostradame, who had been expecting him. Nostradamus explains to him about the awaiting end of the world and of the thirteen skulls that were created to save mankind from itself; there are nine human skulls in the colours of the rainbow (the usual seven plus white, the all-colour, and black, the no-colour) and four in the shapes of animals. He tells Cedric that he must flee for South America, where he will learn much.
And so Cedric finds himself sailing with Fernandez de Aguilar, a Spanish naval captain who is determined to make his fortune in the new world. They arrive on the Yucatan Peninsular at the ancient Mayan city of Tulon (or Zama as the natives call it). At first there is an uneasy truce between himself and Fernandez but their adventures over the next thirty years ensure that they become the sort of friends that would not hesitate to die for each other, as they often nearly do. It is early in this period that Cedric meets Najakmul, a Mayan descendent of great knowledge and greatly skilled in tribal medicine, and she teaches him much that he will need to know if the crystal skulls are to fulfil their purpose.
Returning eventually to England, and hunted as an Enemy of the Realm by Elizabethís spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (who, incidentally, would rather like the crystal skull for himself), Cedric finds himself on the run. His surreptitious journey finds him taking shelter at Lower Hayworth Farm in Oxfordshire where he is surprised to find himself amongst friends. Edward Wainwright, the elderly owner, turns out to be from a long line of keepers of the ancient paths and ways; he is well aware of the crystal skulls and the way, the path to the special place, that the skull keeper must follow when the time is due. And so Cedric arranges to hide his great wealth and his ledgers in the farmhouse where, a hundred years later and safely past the clutches of the Elizabethan court, they will be 'discovered' and passed on for the benefit of Bedeís college. Meanwhile, the skull will disappear from sight Ö until the time of need.
Returning to 2007, Stella and the recuperating Kit return home one evening to find that the place has been trashed - someone is still trying to steal the skull - and the police assure them that they were lucky to have missed the attempt else they might not have survived the obvious violence. They have found further hidden messages in the ledgers, this time in Mayan script, and, determined to learn more, they visit Lower Hayworth Farm in case there are further clues to be found there. It transpires that the farm has remained in family hands since Cedricís days and there is still old knowledge, very well hidden, of the ancient paths and what has to be done.
As the story continues Stella and the injured Kit find themselves in ever increasing danger. With all their friends warning them to destroy the skull before it gets them and their friends killed, they have a very hard choice to make. Do they take the easy way or do they trust themselves that the world really is in great jeopardy and only they can save it, no matter what the sacrifice? Who is the 'enemy'? How many friends may get injured or even killed? Is it even true? Can Stella really win the day? Well, that would be telling wouldnít it.
All told the book runs along at an enjoyable, even pace. The narrative moves back and forth between the two storylines, following each chronologically and weaving them nicely together to tell the tale. However, there is little tension in the narrative, little that happened surprised me in any way, and the bad guys turned out to be who I thought they would be. The little 'mysteries' scattered through the story all proved to have explanations on the lines that I had expected. Perhaps Iíve read too many stories, seen too many episodes of Columbo, but there were no surprises, no 'wow' moments.
Like so many books these days it is very long. Indeed, not only did I sometimes wonder if it was going anywhere, but even if the two stories were split into two books I should think each of them longer than it needed to be. At the time I read this book I was curled up by the radiator for a few days, 'enjoying' a winter cold; I did not want anything too challenging to read and this certainly met that description. If I had had more energy, though, I might have found the length of the book and its slow pace frustrating and been tempted to put it down in preference to something with a bit more go. It took a very long time to tell what were really a couple of quite simple stories.
All in all, it was nicely written and a pleasant read, but took too long to tell its tale.
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