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The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper

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Manda Scott
Posts: 81
Joined: July 2010
Location: Shropshire, UK

The Orpheus Descent by Tom Harper

Post by Manda Scott » Wed March 20th, 2013, 4:41 pm


Tom Harper is rapidly making a name for himself as a sure-footed author of dual time line books which combine a contemporary thriller with a historical action thriller or mystery, in which the synthesis of the two worlds woven together is greater than the sum of its parts. The Orpheus Descent is by far his most ambitious novel to date; I’d go as far as to say it's a project of enormous daring and the wonder of it is that he pulls it off.

The basic premise is that Plato, a somewhat second rate philosopher who had studied with – and worshipped – Socrates, is shipwrecked off the Italian coast and ends up at Syracuse (aka Sicily) as the ‘house guest’ and effective prisoner of the tyrant Dionysius I. He is seeking a friend, Agathon, and Agathon was seeking the truth that came before Pythagorus, which may well take him to Hades.

In the modern day, Jonah is a musician with a successful, but possibly falling-apart rock band. On the night of the (maybe last) gig, he drives down to Greece to meet his wife, Lily. Except Lily isn’t there and everyone is lying to him about where she might be and what she might be doing. In his search for Lily, Jonah finds a golden wafer on which is written the directions to the Underworld.

As the two narratives combine, Jonah must follow his heart, and Lily’s footsteps into the Underworld, just as Plato finally follows Agathon – and so we discover the truth of the path to the Underworld, to the life beyond death, and what we might meet there. Plato, on emerging, becomes the greatest philosopher the Western world has ever known. Jonah, however, must still rescue his wife, and the enigmatic woman who has led him into Hades.

So much for the plot: it’s fast, it’s engaging and it’s clever; it’s a passionate love story -Jonah’s dual-thread of his first meetings with Lily and his hunt for her are very tender in places. But what lifts this book into another realm altogether – what makes it so very daring - is the bringing-alive of philosophy. This is the best of the ‘show, don’t tell’ writing tradition: a writer who knows and understands Plato in depth and can bring out of him the understanding that transformed him from a man who wrote second rate niggles at the Athenians who had murdered his beloved Socrates into the one whose depth we have never quite plumbed. Something huge had to have happened and in this book, we see the hugeness of it, without becoming lost in dry explorations of man and mind.

This book is unique in many ways. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and recommend it highly.


Bestselling author of
Boudica: Dreaming. INTO THE FIRE out in June 2015: Forget what you thought you knew, this changes everything.


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