You know, it seems to me that there are so many people running around the globe looking for hidden secrets, lost treasures and ancient revelations that will change the world forever that it's a miracle they don't all end up bumping into each other. Moreover, there are serial treasure hunters, too, who seem to unearth a mystic secret every time they leave their house: Dan Brown's Robert Langdon, Chris Kuzneski's Payne and Jackson... and now Ben Hope is getting in on the act.
The Alchemist's Secret is Ben Hope's first adventure and sees him hunting for an ancient document that may reveal the elixir of life and restore to health a young girl who is dying of cancer. Needless to say, the document is not available from his local W H Smith, or even Amazon Marketplace and leads him off to all sorts of exotic locations. As he hunts, he becomes aware that other, more dangerous men are searching for the same thing and willing to kill to make sure they get it.
If you're hoping for even the slightest shred of originality from The Alchemist's Secret, then forget it. Author Scott Mariani has come to the "ancient-secret hunt" genre pretty late in the day when the standard components are well established and Mariani is not about to risk alienating a built-in audience by risking something innovative. As such, the plot gives us cliché after cliché from the likeable, honest hero, Ben Hope, intelligent potential love interest Dr Roberta Ryder who unwittingly gets caught up in his adventures; action spread over lots of different locations; a follow-the -clues treasure hunt for a mysterious object and, of course, a shadowy religious organisation out to nick the secret knowledge and use it for eeeeeevil purposes.
On this basis, I almost didn't buy The Alchemist's Secret, which would have been a shame. Yes, it doesn't do anything new, but what it does do, it does well. You can't help but enjoy the daft adventure because it's so fast-paced and interesting that you find yourself wanting to keep reading. Each new revelation serves only to make the plot and the characters more interesting.
One of the main reasons for the success of The Alchemist's Secret is the character of Ben Hope himself. In the words of Harry Enfield's Tim Nice-But-Dim, he's such a "bloody nice bloke" that you just can't help liking him. Sure, like so many other elements of the book he's a walking stereotype; an Outsider with a Past driven to try and help others; an ex-special forces soldier with uncanny skills and a knack for survival; someone who can kill at the drop of a hat (but only people who deserve it) and escape from the most unlikely situations, yet who deep down just wants to be loved. Yet despite his stereotypical traits he comes across (within the context of the book, at least) as a real character and one you'd quite enjoy hanging out with if you ever got the chance.
True, Hope is by far the most rounded character in the whole book (which is not really saying much). For the rest, there's the potential love interest/side kick, the kindly old priest, the evil priest and, of course, the policeman who is initially out to arrest Hope but eventually realises he is on the side of the good guys. The generic nature of these characters doesn't matter, though, because you will be having such good fun in Hope's company and be so wrapped up in his daft adventures that you won't really care that much.
It's the character of Hope along with the usual thriller elements that helps The Alchemist's Secret rise above other similar books. It's more fun, for example, than the books of Raymond Khoury (which can be a little on the serious side); less silly than Chris Kuzneski's Payne and Jones series and far, far better written than anything Dan Brown has ever had published.
Scott Mariani has developed a highly readable style. His prose is neither too serious nor too in-depth, but neither is it excessively flippant or silly. He gives characters, places and situations just enough detail to make them believable, but not so much that the book gets bogged down in lots of dull prose.
He knows exactly how to pace a book, too. Whilst not every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger (another slightly grating feature of the Payne & Jones series), there are enough moments of danger to keep you interested, together with just about enough character development to stop the book from becoming too unbelievable.
Mariani uses an interesting tactic of chapters which vary quite considerably in length. Some are quite long and focus in on a single character or event in considerable detail before switching attention elsewhere. Others are much shorter (sometimes just a few pages long) and are almost like little cameos. This gives the book a filmic quality, as though each chapter is a scene of differing length and importance. Some are dialogue heavy or feature significant plot developments; others are just there to keep you abreast with how more minor characters are faring. The regular switching between people and places keeps interest levels high and makes sure the plot rolls along at a nice pace without switching so rapidly that it becomes distracting or confusing.
Scott Mariani even makes the assumption that his readers (Shock! Horror!) are not actually drooling vegetables and that they might have a degree of intelligence. He doesn't feel the need to constantly explain plot points or repeat them to be sure that his readers have understood the significance of certain events. Even more impressive is the fact that there's the odd line of dialogue in French or Latin... and he assumes his readers are clever enough to work out what they mean, without having a Dan Brown style clunky conversation where one character tells the other what the words mean. Sure, if it's absolutely crucial that the reader understands what's been said, he provide a translation, but even this is done in a seamless way that fits in with the overall tone of the book and doesn't leave the reader feeling patronised.
The Alchemist's Secret can be picked up new for less than a fiver (although keep an eye open for it in charity shops, where you can pick it up for much less.) If you've got a Kindle, though, it's an even better bargain and often be picked up for just 49p (it's 99p at the moment, but is often reduced to half that for a limited time. Yes, you really did read that right: 49p for an entire 400 page book.
Of course, what the publisher is hoping is that by setting such a cheap price, you'll be lured into Ben Hope's world and buy the other 5 titles in the series. And on the evidence of The Alchemist's Secret, I might just go and do that...
The Alchemist's Secret
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Following my long awaited purchase of an iPhone, I got to work playing around with the iBooks app.
The Alchemist's secret was my first purchase. At a mere 49p, I did not expect this to be an amazing piece of fiction. Wow, how wrong I was.....
The Alchemist's secret is a thrilling read, full of non-stop action. You are drawn into the main characters haunted past and need for redemption (bit cliché, I know), who is a mix of Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, with a little bit of James Bond thrown in. As such, you imagine the kind of situations Ben Hope has to get out of. Sometimes, the book does get a bit silly with the concept of 'out of the frying pan, into the fire' but it all makes for a great read.
I would definitely recommend this book to all action junkies. Great characters and fantastic story.
Just before our holiday I felt the need to find myself some suitable poolside reading material. That is how I stumbled upon The Alchemist's Secret by Scott Mariani. It was available from Waterstone's as an e-book or amazon in the kindle format for just 49p and having just bought myself a Kindle, I decided it would be a good starting point. The book is in fact the first in a series from Mariani that focus on a central character, ex Special Forces operative Ben Hope. The content of the book sounded like the kind of story I would enjoy and certainly wouldn't prove too taxing whilst lying in the sun.
Since leaving the SAS Ben Hope has devoted his life to finding missing children, following an incident when he was younger and his little sister was taken, an event Ben blames himself for. Having completed his latest mission he has returned home to rest, however a rich British businessman has another, slightly different task for him. He wants Ben to find the Fullcanelli manuscript, a document that claims to have the Alchemist's formula for the elixir of life. The problem is that Ben isn't the only one after the manuscript and he soon encounters a shadowy religious movement known as Gladius Domini who will do whatever it takes to stop him and find the formula for themselves.
I have to admit that I wasn't really sure what to expect from The Alchemist's Secret. For starters the price tag didn't really suggest this was going to be a best seller, after all how many books are normally sold for 49p. then there were the never ending comparisons to Dan Brown, which whilst I like Brown's work the comparisons always worry me. The subject matter is clearly a similar vein, however Mariani's approach to the novel is very different to Brown's, which is clear even by the type of lead character.
In fact it is a little insulting to the author that simply because he wrote this book after the Da Vinci code that it should draw comparisons to Brown. My expectations weren't high given the parameters above but what I found actually surprised me a great deal. In his own way Mariani creates a very likeable and interesting lead character and puts him into a plot that flows really well. The action starts from the first page of the book and doesn't seem to stop until the very last page. It made for a very addictive read and one I really struggled to put down.
He uses Ben Hope to play on that emotion within all of us who would do anything to make up for something we blame ourselves for. In this respect he makes sure that Hope doesn't become just another character and instead really stands out from the pages. He takes on 5 or 6 men at any given time and using his training can take them all out. It's the kind of unbelievable action that can only happen on the pages of a book, but Mariani really brings it to life through Ben Hope and his search for the missing artefact.
Of course the whole searching for a hidden ancient treasure has been done before and will be done a million times more, but what Mariani does is inject an interesting, page turning story to a genre that inspires so much drivel. In his own way though Mariani has created an enjoyable book that really hooks you from the start. He keeps the action going and creates supporting characters to either aid or hinder Ben's story. Other than his romantic interest Dr Roberta Ryder none of them make much of an impression, but they all serve to develop and progress the story at a more than acceptable pace.
It would be fair to say that Mariani hasn't written an original novel here, the concepts have been tried with varying success before. The key is that he has managed to get the mixture of characterisation, action and plot just right to create a page turning beach novel. It's a decent read and for the price it certainly was a bargain. If you like the treasure hunting genre then you will enjoy this. The comparisons to Dan Brown are there if you want to see them but it can also be likened to work by Clive Cussler and Chris Kuzneski, so it's unfair to simply label it as similar to Brown. The book is interesting and held my attention whilst entertaining me and frankly, that's exactly what I wanted it to do. I for one will certianly be looking out for more books from Scott Mariani.
Amazon kindle: 49p
Amazon Paperback: £9.99