Saturday 22 January 2011

The Hidden Oasis by Paul Sussman

The Hidden Oasis (2009) is the third novel by Paul Sussman, the others being The Lost Army of Cambyses (2002) and The Last Secret of the Temple (2005). All three are written to the same formula; present-day adventure thrillers in which the characters are struggling to solve mysteries linked to events in both the recent and the very distant past. The author's background as a field archaeologist who has spent much time in Egypt is made full use of, with rich descriptions of the country and of archaeology, and his understanding of the different cultures of the region comes through clearly.

There is one common character in all three novels - Inspector Khalifa of the Luxor Police - but he has only a cameo role in the latest story. The principals are a young American woman who visits Egypt for the first time for the funeral of her elder sister, and the British archaeologist who had worked with her sister in a search for the "hidden oasis", a legendary place sought for centuries which was supposed to contain a weapon of mysterious power. Added to this, an aircraft carrying an important cargo had vanished in the area some twenty years before, and various groups - including some exceedingly unsavoury characters - were taking an active interest. Inevitably, the principal characters become involved in the search and much skullduggery, chases and general excitement follow, before all is revealed.

Sussman's work has been compared with Dan Brown's but his plotting, characterisation and writing in general are vastly superior. In spirit, this story reminded me a little of a childhood favourite: Rider Haggard's King Soloman's Mines. The pacing of the story is steady to start with but gradually ramps up and I read the last third of this 620 page book in one go - I couldn't put it down.

On the face of it Sussman's books do not fit into the SFF category, but in all his stories there is an touch of fantasy at the end and this forms a major element in The Hidden Oasis. This may sound odd coming from an SFF fan, but I rather wish it didn't; this story works perfectly well as an exciting modern adventure mystery set against an authentically detailed background, and the magical happenings right at the end seem somehow out of place. I would have preferred an element of uncertainty as to whether or not there could have been a mundane explanation for events, but no such get-out in this story; the impossibility of the ending is literally earth-shaking. Despite this reservation, the novels are well worth reading if you enjoy burying yourself in a really good, well-researched yarn.


Bill Garthright said...

Tony, it sounds rather like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the similar movies which have come out since then. And, yes, like Dan Brown. (I must admit that I was astonished at how poorly written his novel, The Da Vinci Code, really was. That was a bestseller?)

These books and movies can be fun, but I guess I'm starting to get tired of the whole theme, since everyone has jumped on the very lucrative bandwagon. In this case, yeah, I'd be far more interested without the fantasy coming true at the end.

For that reason, I think it's probably not for me.

Anthony G Williams said...

Bill, it's a much more serious and professional effort than either ROTLA or TDC - until the fantasy ending!