Friday, 22 August 2014

Book Spotlight & Excerpt ~ Imago by Jack Reyn


Genre: Alternate-history thriller


An ancient legend. A deadly race.

The clouds of war gather over a world bitterly divided by science and religion. As steam locomotives thunder past the temples of Norse gods, and religious extremists terrorise the industrial powers of Europe, three very different people are pulled into a sinister conspiracy.

For Julian Harvey, a government agent tasked with controlling religion, a simple murder investigation becomes a fight for his life against a dark cult that threatens to plunge Europe into chaos.

For Freyja Barrett, a bounty hunter for hire, a secret breathed by a dying priest leads to a race against time to find an ancient relic of legendary power.

And for Zoe Rousseau, a devout believer, her preparation for initiation into an underground cult becomes a test more lethal than anything she could have imagined.

In a world where ancient pagan religion flourishes in an age of rationalism, all three will find their deepest beliefs under attack in a desperate struggle for survival.

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√Čtretat, France – 11:23pm RST (Rational Standard Time)

The house itself was surprisingly modest. Three stories high, with an old-fashioned gable roof and shuttered windows, it suggested wealth and restrained good taste.
Its location, however, suggested nothing of the kind.
On three sides of the house, the land fell suddenly in chalk cliffs to the sea far below. Nothing but thin strips of grass lay between the house and the sheer drop. On the fourth side, an immaculate, narrow lawn stretched away for a hundred metres, perfectly bisected by a gravel driveway. The house had been built at the end of a perilously thin finger of land thrust out from the cliffs, a craggy, natural pier of chalk. Where the finger connected with the mainland, a security fence neatly cut it off from the outside world.
Beyond the fence and its attendant guardhouse, a private road wound towards the village half a kilometre away, where the cliffs sank down into a wide, golden beach. In the summer it filled with holidaymakers, who squinted up at the house at the end of the cliffs and wondered who could possibly live there.
Someone wealthy, they thought. Someone who appreciated a good view. And on this they were quite correct. But what was less obvious to the casual observer was that the house’s remote and lofty location made it much more than just a highly desirable summer home.
It was a fortress.
And tonight, it was being breached.
Below the house – beyond the end of the finger of land – a massive buttress thrust further into the sea, creating a natural archway. A chalk pillar stood even further out, the rock seeming to glow faintly against the moonless night sky. Below, invisible to anyone on the cliff top, the surf crashed remorselessly against it.
Halfway up the buttress, a grey-clad figure moved equally invisibly, methodically climbing the cliff with two small picks.
The climber reached the top of the buttress, and with difficulty scaled the remaining, sheerer distance to the top of the cliff. Clambering onto the strip of grass at the top, he darted to the back of the house and flattened himself against the wall.
He paused, listening for any sounds above the roar of the surf far below, before carefully edging around the building until he reached the front.
Standing motionless, invisible in the darkness, he could see a light in the window of the guardhouse at the end of the drive, a hundred metres away. After waiting a few minutes, and seeing no visible movement, the man stowed his climbing picks in his backpack, then darted up the short flight of steps leading to the front door, and bent to inspect the lock.
From a pouch on his belt he took two slivers of metal, barely visible in the darkness, and inserted them carefully into the lock. He rotated them minutely, the motions of his fingers as delicate and practised as those of a surgeon, until the tumblers clattered into place. Standing, he pulled on a pair of thin gloves, cautiously opened the door, and slipped inside, shutting it behind him with a quiet click.
The hallway was pitch black. The intruder, now apparently confident that he was alone in the house, took off his backpack and pulled out a small oil lantern, which he lit with a match. The dim light which it produced revealed a large, impeccably furnished room. Potted palms cast spidery shadows which crept across the black and white walls as the intruder moved his lamp in a wide arc, peering at his surroundings.
Directly opposite the front door, a burgundy-carpeted staircase led up into the darkness. The intruder climbed it, his movements quick and careful. It led to another hallway, where he pushed open the first door he came to.
He found himself in a large study, where an untidy desk stood before tall, shuttered windows. On the far side of the room, an elegant set of quilted chairs was grouped around a coffee table, on which two large books of photography had been tossed. The whole room was dominated by mahogany shelves which lined the walls from floor to ceiling, crammed with leather-bound books.
Like the rest of the house, the study spoke of wealth and casual good taste. But it also bore a hint of something else, something both headier and infinitely more ephemeral: the indescribable aura of power.
Closing the door, the intruder placed the lantern carefully on the desk, and began to sift through the papers lying on it. His face, now lit by the soft glow of the lantern, revealed little. The intruder was a thin, wiry man in his forties. Deep lines ran, prematurely, across his high forehead and from his large, narrow nose to the corners of his mouth.
After a couple of minutes, having failed to find what he was looking for, he moved from the desk and began to inspect the shelves that lined the room. Glancing only briefly at the books they housed, he instead ran his fingers along the shelves themselves and their supports.
When he reached a portion just behind the chairs and coffee table, there was a soft click, and a narrow section of shelving swung out slightly. For the first time since he had entered the house, the intruder smiled.
But at that moment, the front door slammed. The intruder started in shock and moved swiftly to the study door and opened it ajar, listening intently. From the hallway below he could make out two voices – two men – speaking.
It seemed that the owner of the house was not going to be absent tonight after all.
Moving with desperate haste, the intruder closed the study door once more, then snatched up the lantern from the desk and scanned the room for a hiding place. Only the secret door in the bookcase offered any refuge. He yanked it open, stepped inside, and pulled the door to behind him as he raised the lantern.
Abruptly, a face leaped at the intruder from the darkness – a terrifying apparition with long hair, a bushy beard, and wild eyes. Most monstrous of all, the man had enormous antlers, spread menacingly like outstretched arms, dominating the room and lunging towards the door. In one hand he wielded a curved blade, which he thrust at the intruder.
Staggering back, the intruder stifled a cry, raising the lantern to defend himself. But the antlered man stayed rooted to the spot, suddenly motionless. It was just a statue, given temporary life and movement by the swinging lantern. Nevertheless, the intruder gaped at the statue in astonishment. For it was one of the most familiar figures in the world: the Horned God, an object of veneration to millions. And what he had, in his panic, mistaken for a blade was nothing more than a symbol of the crescent moon. In the other hand, the figure held a circle, representing the full moon.
Similar statues could be found all over the world. But images of the Horned God were illegal in this country, and had been for centuries. Some existed, certainly – mostly hidden away in the homes of clandestine worshippers, who faced imprisonment if discovered.
Hardly an object you’d expect to find in the home of someone as powerful as the man who lived here.
As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, the intruder saw that behind the statue the room was little more than an oversized cupboard. But it was crammed with religious images of every kind. Icons and small idols were packed onto narrow shelves, and huddled together on the floor. Gods of every description stared unblinking in the flickering lamp light: willowy women in flowing robes; helmeted warriors, proudly raising ancient weapons; squat, cross-legged characters smiling gnomically; sun gods, moon goddesses, and green men. The stubs of candles were littered among them, dribbles of hard wax staining the floor.
Blowing out the lantern, the intruder was plunged into darkness. Barely a moment later he heard the study door open and light blazed through the crack in the bookcase door as the room’s electric light was turned on. Moving silently forward, the intruder pressed his eye to the crack in the doorway and looked out at the room beyond.
The owner of the house, immaculate in a black evening suit and spats, was holding the study door open for another man. His guest was also dressed in black, but there the resemblance ended. He wore a heavy dark robe, the hem of which swished around his ankles as he strode into the room. Long, elaborately styled ringlets escaped from under his turban around the back and sides of his head. His features were Middle Eastern, and his black beard was tinged with grey.
The intruder recognised his face instantly. He was the leader – in this country – of a dangerous sect, a foreign religion with a bloody past. He was a fanatic, a terrorist, one of the country’s most wanted men. And here was one of the most powerful and influential members of the establishment and his sworn enemy, welcoming him into his study.
The owner of the house motioned his guest into one of the chairs, before sitting down himself and pouring two glasses of wine from a carafe on the coffee table. As the man in the black robe moved to take one, the religious symbol which hung from a chain around his neck swung forward and caught the light, sweeping away the intruder’s last remaining doubts about the man’s identity. There could be no doubting that symbol or what it meant.
The owner of the house took a sip from his own glass, before replacing it on the coffee table and sitting back. Crossing his legs and folding his hands in the attitude that the intruder knew too well – an attitude of control, poise, and slightly amused disdain for whoever he was talking to – he began to speak.
Trapped in the secret room with the statue of the Horned God and the host of icons, the intruder listened to their conversation with mounting fear.
For he knew that what they were planning would change the world forever.

Boulogne, France - 11:50pm RST

‘So it’s true,’ said the man in the long, clerical robe.
His two companions nodded grimly.
‘Everything was smashed,’ said the man to his left. ‘The temple wrecked, the holy icons broken.’
‘And Father Florian beaten and left for dead,’ added his other companion, a woman with greying hair tightly curled around her head.
‘The third in less than a fortnight,’ said the man in the vestments. He shook his head, his hand moving unconsciously to touch the brooch on his shoulder that pinned his robe together. It was a simple design in silver: a circle flanked by two crescents, representing the waxing, full, and waning moon.
Their shadows bobbed and flickered on the rough, grey walls and the low ceiling as the cheap candles on the cloth-covered table in front of them sputtered fitfully.
There were no other lights in the small, windowless room. A dozen or so chairs filled the little space. The two men and the woman sat on the front row, facing the table and, beyond it, a large, stylised statue of a bearded man holding an upright cartwheel.
‘Who is it, Father Louis? The police?’ The man’s features were hard to make out in the dim light, his dark eyes lost in the gloom.
The man in the robe shook his head again. ‘I don’t think so. This isn’t how they do things. There’s no message here, no government crackdown, no announcements. It’s as if they’re looking for something.’
The other two exchanged alarmed glances.
‘You don’t think – ’ began the woman.
‘They’re trying to find it? It’s possible,’ Father Louis replied.
‘But they can’t – ’ stammered the other man. ‘If it should be found…’
‘I know.’
‘Can’t the hierarchy do something?’ said the woman.
‘What can they do?’ said Father Louis. The candlelight cast the deep lines on his face into shadow as he glanced around at her. ‘Rome has no power here. Each temple must look out for itself.’
‘Then what are we going to do?’
Father Louis drummed his fingers on his knee for a moment. He seemed to reach a decision.
‘There’s someone who might be able to help. An investigator. With the skills to find out who’s behind this and what they want. Who might know how we can stop them.’
‘Who?’ demanded the other man. ‘Do you know him?’
‘Her,’ corrected the priest mildly. ‘I knew her in – in my past life. I’ll contact her. Anonymously, to start with. If anyone can get to the bottom of this, she can.’
‘And if she can’t?’
Father Louis gazed at the statue at the front of the room, the candles massed in front of it. His eyes moved to the lowering shadow it cast against the wall and ceiling behind. ‘Then even Taranis won’t be able to save us.’


London – 5:12am RST

Father Thames was the most welcoming of gods. People had been making offerings to him for thousands of years, and he accepted them all on equal terms. No supplicant was ever turned away.
The corpse was no different.
It had entered the river some way up, around Pimlico, perhaps, or Lambeth was probably more likely. Perhaps it had already been a corpse when it was offered to Father Thames, or maybe it was still a living person at that stage. It made little difference to the river, which treated all human bodies equally, and reduced them to the same condition no matter what state they were in when it received them. No wonder so many people had venerated the winding, grey ribbon as a microcosm of life itself.
The body floated past West Temple, the centuries-old palace on the bank of the river where the government still sat, as it had since time immemorial. The incongruity of the name invariably amused and puzzled tourists, who did not understand the peculiarly English solution to embarrassing anachronisms: make no effort to do anything about them for so long that they become venerable traditions, and then fight tooth and nail to preserve them unchanged for posterity.
As the palace receded on the left, the body bobbed past Southwark on the right – past the art galleries and theatres, and under the great bridge that linked the magnificent railway stations on either side of the river. The iron spans of the bridge still shone, but the brick pillars that bore its weight were already discoloured green and black where the Thames slopped around them. The body navigated its way around the pillars in the awkward but unerring way that such objects always do, before rejoining the main stream in the centre of the river. Small boats steamed past it, swamping it with their wakes, but every time the body disappeared beneath the choppy grey water, it would re-emerge moments later further downstream.
It picked up speed as it passed the Royal Museum on the left, with its mock-classical pillars and great dome. It was still an imposing structure, even though it was now overshadowed by the massive bulk of the towers and ziggurats of the City, oddly ethereal-looking with their white stone and concrete. In the right light, the City looked as though a vast bank of cotton-soft clouds had descended upon London and tried to make an effort by straightening their edges out somewhat. At night, it sparkled with a million gas and electric lights. But on grey mornings like today, the City merely contrived to look greyer still.
The body swirled and span as it passed the Tower of London, where another gleaming new bridge mimicked the castle’s medieval turrets with two taller, spikier, and thoroughly tackier towers of its own. As it passed Surrey Docks on the right, and the northern skyline gave way to a series of enormous brick warehouses, the light river traffic became a chaos of altogether more serious ships, churning the water of the Thames as they steamed upriver to the docks, turning, manoeuvring, reversing, and heading back again towards the sea. The air was blue with the curses of sailors and dockers, and the water was thick with oil and debris, bobbing tirelessly in the choppy waves in which the corpse floated. It was flung into a series of eddies as a black iron barge thundered by, pushing it towards the north bank where, eventually, it washed onto the steps of a small dock at Lymhoste.
And there it ceased to be the concern of Father Thames, and became instead the problem of Julian Harvey.

About the Author
I'm an academic at a leading British university, specialising in religion. It's a job I love - I get to teach some of the brightest minds of the next generation and question a lot of my own ideas and beliefs along the way. I’m not religious, but I’m fascinated by the way religion works and the questions it raises about both the world and the way the mind works.

The academic life also means research, and I've spent many years publishing research on a range of subjects to do with religion and philosophy. It's not easy, but there's always something thrilling about uncovering a new idea or piece of history that no-one has noticed before, and making my own small contribution to what we know.

I've also published a number of books on the history of religion and theology, for a wider readership.

So I had a lot of writing experience, but had always had an ambition to write fiction, using my academic knowledge to create a believable world. One day I found myself with more spare time than usual, and had a go. Some years later, Imago - my first novel - is the result. There will be more on the way…

When I'm not doing all that I like to go for walks with my wife (or, more often, have lazy evenings in), and read - preferably thrillers, science fiction, and fantasy.


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