Tom Harper – The Orpheus Descent

tomharper-theorpheusdescent2500 years ago, the philosopher Plato travelled to Italy on the trail of an ancient mystery – a riddle written in gold, pointing the way to an unimaginable truth. What he found changed him forever, and set him on the path to becoming the greatest thinker in human history.

Today, twelve golden tablets sit in museums around the world, each created by unknown hands and buried in ancient times, each providing the dead with the route to the afterlife. And archaeologist Lily Barnes, working on a dig in southern Italy, has just found another.

And then Lily vanishes.

Has she walked out of her job, her marriage and her life? Her husband Jonah, refuses to believe it. But no one can help him: not the police; not the secretive foundation that sponsored her dig; not even their circle of university friends who seem to know more than they’re saying. All Jonah has is faith, and a determination to do whatever it takes to get Lily back.

But like Plato before him, Jonah will discover the journey ahead is mysterious and dark and fraught with danger.

And not everyone who journeys to the place where Lily has gone can return.

I seem to have hit a dual-timeline streak in my reading. Of the past dozen or so books I’ve read, at least five had dual (or multiple) timelines. It’s an interesting realisation, and while probably not indicative of a trend in publishing – dual-timelines have been around for ages – as a reader, it does give me a clearer view of what can go wrong or right when such a construction is used. Tom Harper’s The Orpheus Descent is another dual-timeline book and one which does it very well, in my opinion. The two timelines are clearly linked, but not dependent on each other, however, the braiding of the two narratives enriches the story as a whole and gives it added depth.

The earlier timeline follows Plato, one of the most important philosophers in Western history. One of Socrates’ disciples, he was hit hard by his teacher’s execution by his beloved Athenian state and for years he’s set adrift, as were many of Socrates’ other pupils. This results in Plato taking ship for Italy after receiving a cryptic letter from one of his closest friends and one of Socrates’ star pupils, Agathon. He sets out on a ship in the – rather unwanted – company of Euphemus, a sophist, someone who embodies everything Plato and Socrates before him disapproves of heartily. What follows is a long game of chase across the Greek colonies in Italy, one in which Plato never quite manages to catch up to Agathon, but does manage to piece together the mystery his friend has unearthed. It’s a fascinating journey, not just in a physical sense, but also on a meta-physical level, as Harper manages to incorporate the seed questions to Plato’s best-known teachings. As such, he makes a convincing case for how Plato’s departure from his Socratic principles came about.

As the first-person narrator Plato is the character the reader becomes most closely connected to and he’s a sympathetic and likeable character. Given to deep contemplation, he is a surprisingly action-driven character, who doesn’t hesitate to act in any given situation. The more pragmatic and opportunistic Euphemus starts out as an unlikeable sod, but gradually becomes more sympathetic as Plato’s perceptions of him and his ideas change. A more mysterious character whose motives remain somewhat obscured is Diotema. She possesses almost supernatural powers and while ostensibly she champions a good cause, I never came to trust her, even if Plato did. Plato’s storyline ends where it began, in the Piraeus, the Athenian harbour, but the Plato who returns is a completely different person from the one who left, having learnt of mysteries beyond the ken of his contemporaries and going on to teach what he’d learnt in one of the greatest schools Athens would ever know.

The other timeline is contemporary and focuses on the story of Jonah, a musician who goes looking for his missing wife. Lily has discovered the same golden tablet as Agathon had and seemingly as a result has vanished. Foul play or not, Jonah is determined to find Lily, if only to get some answers, but in truth because he can’t imagine living without the love of his life. Jonah was immediately sympathetic, you can’t help but like him in his bewildered, grief-stricken state and tenacious faith in Lily. His story is a real thriller, including a secretive foundation, a cabal of Oxford friends, and a mysterious voice on the phone offering him help. The mystery surrounding Lily’s disappearance is tangled, but Harper teases out the knots without leading the reader by the nose.

Jonah is surrounded by frustrating characters: Lily’s Oxford friends who seem to be hiding things left, right, and centre. None of them came off as very likeable, except for Julian, as you’d expect more of a sympathetic reaction to Jonah’s plight instead of the rather callous brushing off he receives, telling him to let it go, because Lily has simply left him. Similarly, Lily’s mother and sister are as easily dismissive of Jonah, despite not having spoken to Lily themselves. In fact, other than Jonah, Lily, and Jonah’s unexpected ally, Ren, the contemporary timeline is rather devoid of sympathetic characters. In essence, this serves to emphasize Jonah’s increasing isolation as he searches for Lily.

The contemporary timeline has more immediacy to it, which is logical due to its thriller-nature. However, even if Plato’s timeline is of a more historical bent, it is still an exciting read, and no less enthralling than its companion. In The Orpheus Descent, Harper blends historical fiction and thriller elements with classical Greek mythology, which ends in a gripping denouement in which the mystery of both timelines is revealed in a sequence that sucked me in and wouldn’t let go for the last four chapters of the book. While one of the books on my Anticipated Books List for the first half of the year, this book exceeded all my expectations and while this is the first book I’ve read by Tom Harper, I definitely hope it isn’t my last. With The Orpheus Descent, Harper has firmly placed himself on my must-read list.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • This looks like something for me. Have added it to my to buy list. :-)

    • I think you would like it, Ole! Thanks for reading :-)