Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 25 June 2019)
Series: Benedict Hitchens series – Book 2
Length: 404 pages
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
It’s time for another exciting archaeological adventure in the turbulent 1950s as Meaghan Wilson Anastasios returns with the second book in her Benedict Hitchens series, The Emerald Tablet.
Anastasios is an Australian academic who started writing fiction back in 2014 when she co-wrote her first historical fiction novel, The Water Diviner, with her husband, Andrew Anastasios. This first book was fairly successful and was loosely adapted into a film of the same name featuring Russel Crowe. Last year, Meaghan Anastasios wrote her first solo novel, The Honourable Thief. The Honourable Thief serves as the first book in the Benedict Hitchens series, which follows the adventures of the series’ titular protagonist, Benedict Hitchens, an ambitious American archaeologist living in Turkey.
In The Honourable Thief, Hitchens, a respected academic and war hero, was seduced by the beautiful Eris, who showed him a fabulous collection of artefacts she had apparently recovered. The seduction and the artefacts were revealed to be part of an elaborate con which ended up ruining Hitchens’s academic reputation and forced him to live a life of exile in Istanbul. The incident also provided Hitchens with a series of clues which eventually leads him to the hidden tomb of Achilles. However, this was revealed to be part of a further con: while he was able to find the tomb, Eris and her employer, Garvé, a man who Hitchens had significant history with during World War II, subsequently stole the tomb’s greatest treasure, the Shield of Achilles.
Now, a year later in 1956, Hitchens’s excavation of Achilles’s tomb has helped restore his academic reputation, and his life is back on track. However, he has never forgotten Eris, who still has a hold on his heart even after she betrayed him. When he finds out that Eris, now calling herself Essie, is in Istanbul researching a rare and ancient document, he decides to investigate what she is up to. He quickly discovers that she and Garvé are searching for the Emerald Tablet, a legendary artefact rumoured to hold powerful alchemical secrets that could alter the world.
Determined to keep the Emerald Tablet out of Garvé’s hands, Hitchens begins his own hunt for the tablet. With his friend the crooked antiques dealer Ilhan Aslan at his side, Hitchens follows a series of clues deep into the Middle East. However, this is a dangerous time, as tensions between Egypt, Israel and the European powers are at an all-time high. Hitchens and Aslan soon find that the Emerald Tablet’s trail leads them right into the middle of the chaotic Suez Canal crisis. With agents of the various world powers also searching for the tablet and a murderous assassin following Hitchens’s every move, can he recover the tablet before it is too late, or will Garvé once again outsmart him? And what will happen when Hitchens once again comes face-to-face with the woman who stole his heart?
This was a fantastic follow-up to Anastasios’s first solo novel, and the author has done a great job continuing the story from the first Benedict Hitchens book. The Emerald Tablet has a fast-paced and exciting story focused on the search for an intriguing artefact and featuring an interesting look at a major historical event of the 1950s. In addition, Anastasios tries out some new storytelling methods and a focus on one of the villains from the first novel, which work well to create a fascinating overall narrative. All of this results in an amazing book which I had a fun time reading.
While the first book in the series, The Honourable Thief, employed several separate timelines spread out through the book, Anastasios chose a different format for The Emerald Tablet. This second book is told in a linear way, with the events occurring in a chronological order. This time, however, the story is told from the perspectives of Hitchens and Eris/Essie, who show two different sides of the hunt for the Emerald Tablet.
I really enjoyed the central hunt for the Emerald Tablet that formed the main part of the book. Not only has Anastasios chosen an absolutely fascinating artefact for all the characters to chase but she has created a compelling archaeological and historical mystery surrounding its hidden location. The point-of-view characters are forced to follow a series of elaborate historical clues, many of which can be interpreted in different ways thanks to historical context or locations. Having the two-separate point-of-view characters works incredibly well for this part of the story, as both Hitchens and Eris receive different hints or have conflicting interpretations of the same historical clues, which results in them searching in different locations. This central story is filled with a number of great twists and betrayals, and I quite liked how the protagonists had to contend with agents of the various world powers who have an interest in the tablet for their own ends. Agents of the American, Soviet, British, Israeli and Turkish governments all have a role to play in the adventure, as well as agents of the central antagonist, Garvé. Not only does this increase the action and intrigue of the book but it also raises the stakes of the hunt for the artefact. The reader is constantly left guessing about the location and nature of the artefact Hitchens is hunting for. This was an excellent central narrative for this book, and I had a great time exploring this new archaeological mystery.
Just like she did with The Honourable Thief, Anastasios has chosen a fascinating treasure that the book’s various characters are trying to locate. The Emerald Tablet is an intriguing item out of history and mythology, which is rumoured to hold the secrets to transmutation. The author does a fantastic job of exploring the various myths and theories about the origins and nature of the tablet and the reader gets a great idea of its potential and why it has been hidden. It was a great summary of such an intriguing and unique item from history, especially as the author plays up the mystical side of the whole artefact. There are also outright hints that magic or alchemy, especially the alchemical transmutation of the Emerald Tablet, are real in this universe, which not only makes this story just that little more entertaining, but it could result in some fun adventures in the future. The whole mystical angle also allowed the author to explore some of the occultist groups of the early 20th century, such as the followers of Aleister Crowley, who was quite a peculiar historical figure. Readers will find all of this incredibly riveting, and I felt that these curious subjects added a lot of interest to the overall story.
Anastasios’s use of historical Turkey and Crete was one of the highlights of The Honourable Thief, and I loved that she has once again chosen another captivating historical setting to use as the backdrop for this sequel. While the author does set a bit of The Emerald Tablet in Turkey, this book also explores the Suez Crisis of 1956, as the point-of-view characters spend time in Egypt and Israel and witness some of the crisis firsthand. Most of the course of the war is shown through the excellent use of realistic newspaper clippings set at the front several chapters that showcase how the situation between Egypt, Israel, France, England, the United States and other nations broke down and led to conflict. However, the accounts from Hitchens and Eris reveal that parts of the crisis where instigated as a cover for some of the sides to attempt to seize the Emerald Tablet. This makes for a fun tweak to history which fits the rest of the story quite well. The use of two separate point-of-view characters also allowed for a broader vision of the crisis, as one character mostly viewed it from Egypt, while the other saw it from within Israel, and both characters interacted with members of the country who had opinions about the upcoming conflict. I once again really enjoyed Anastasios’s use of 1950s historical settings, especially the Suez Crisis, and I feel it is one of the best parts of her Benedict Hitchens books.
There is a lot of good character work included in The Emerald Tablet. Not only do we finally get a close look at the mysterious character from the first book, Eris, but we get to further explore the psyche of Hitchens following the traumatic events of the previous book. Eris’s background is revealed in this book and it is a pretty interesting tale. I really enjoyed seeing her side of the story in this book. Not only does it allow the author to showcase this character’s past and her association with the villainous Garvé but we also get to see her motivations for the actions in this book and The Honourable Thief, including her feelings for Hitchen’s following her betrayal of him. Hitchens was already a fairly emotionally damaged character in the first book due to the death of his wife during World War II. However, Eris’s betrayal in the previous book has also had a marked impact on him, and he is obsessed with finding her again. This becomes one of his main motivations in The Emerald Thief, and he goes to extreme lengths to try and claim the tablet before she does, partially to frustrate her and partially in case it leads him to her. Their eventual meeting is an excellent part of the book, and we finally get to see how their relationship might be without the manipulations of Garvé. Certain complications will likely make this relationship an intriguing part of any future books in the series, and I look forward to them reuniting again. Can I also say: thank goodness that Hitchens wised up a little in this book. After some serious blunders from the genius archaeologist in the first book, I was glad that it took a little more to fool him this time.
I feel the need to comment on some of the rather racy scenes that Anastasios included in this book which may prove to be a bit surprising for some readers. Not only is there a rather disturbing ritualistic orgy as part of the story but there was a rather explicit scene in the first few pages of the book that nearly threw me off right at the start. I personally thought that these scenes were a bit unnecessary and somewhat distracting from the main story, but there were some plot reasons for them, and the rest of the story is really enjoyable.
Overall, The Emerald Tablet is an extremely entertaining novel, which does a superb job building on the foundations of the first book in the series. Anastasios has done an outstanding job combining together a fascinating archaeological mystery with emotional character work and an excellent historical setting. The Emerald Tablet is an amazing read, and I look forward to seeing what crazy artefact Benedict Hitchens attempts to find in his next book.