It’s always gratifying to discover a new author and a new fiction series that features archaeology as an important aspect of the story line. So it was when Amazon.com informed me that “If you liked *******, you may like ******,” and I was referred to D.J. Niko’s new Sarah Weston novels.
Sarah is the feisty heroine of the series—a young (and apparently quite attractive) Cambridge archaeologist, daughter of a British nobleman and deceased American actress. In the opening pages of The Tenth Saint, she is managing a UNESCO-sponsored search for buried funerary chambers in the desolate landscape of Aksum, an area of modern-day Ethiopia that had been the center of a centuries-old empire and the legendary ancestral home of the Biblical Queen of Sheba.
While taking a lunch break at a canteen in the modern-day village of Aksum, she is accosted by a wheedling local—a probable conman—who nonetheless shows Sarah some interesting potsherds and the promise of more treasures he can show her—for a price. In what will prove to be a life-changing decision for her, Sarah agrees to follow him to the hidden site—a cave in the cliffs approaching Dabra Damo, the oldest church in Ethiopia, supposedly built by nine saints who brought Christianity to Ethiopia. She sends digital photos of type of Coptic cross etched on the cave wall back to her supervisor in Cambridge, the irascible Stanley Simon who replies with a fiery denunciation of her departure from the UNESCO-endorsed excavation plan and, in fact, tells her that the lack of appreciable discoveries after five months of digging has moved UNESCO to send Dr. Daniel Madigan, an American anthropologist, to review her progress and report back to them regarding continued support. Madigan, in Sarah’s estimation, is a preening “rock star” academic with more style than substance, in great part due to his popular television specials highlighting the discovery of “ancient mysteries” for a gullible scientifically illiterate public.
Daniel Madigan, however, surprises her by not only being charming (and handsome) but also very much interested in her cave discovery and together they continue exploring the hidden cavern, which yields both a most unusual burial in an ancient coffin but also the adjacent cave wall covered with inscriptions in an antiquated Semitic script. Madigan believes a friend of his, Rada Kabede—a linguistic scholar in Addis Ababa—will be able to translate the inscription. Kabede recognizes the script as a variation of safaitic, a dialect spoken more than two millennia ago by Arab nomads, but never spoken in Ethiopia. To provide further mystery to the discovery, while C-14 analysis of the burial dates to the 4th Century CE, there are attributes of the body that put that conclusion in question.
The situation grows murkier—and considerably more dangerous—when Sarah is warned by the Director of Antiquities from the Ministry of Culture to leave well tenth saint of Ethiopia, who deserves to repose peacefully in the sacred ground of Dabra Damo Mountain. He darkly hints that an ancient religious brotherhood has watched over and protected the burial for millennia. His warnings take on a tragic immediacy when Rada Kabede is found brutally murdered—but not before he was able to send a partial translation of the inscription that suggests it is a prophecy that speaks of a deadly conflagration that will bring about an end to all life on earth!
The pace of the action picks up as Daniel and Sarah match wits with deadly enemies who would seemingly stop at nothing to keep the identity of the tenth saint and his prophecies from the world at large. All of this is told in an engaging writing style, with attractive and admirable protagonists and dastardly villains, and an eye for local color. The plot however veers off into realms of science fiction that can be scintillating and fun if introduced into an other-wise “real world” adventure tale with great nuance and subtlety, but in this case it just doesn’t work. Sarah and Daniel, scientists dedicated to rational exposition and discovery, should not accept a fantastically wild answer to the mystery of the tenth saint with barely a figurative shrug of the shoulders.
Two trowels for The Tenth Saint.