Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 7, 2019

The Emerald Tablet (Benedict Hitchens #2), by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios

The Emerald Tablet is not my usual reading fare, but I enjoyed it.  Written by Melbourne author Meaghan Wilson Anastasios who has a career in archaeology in the Mediterranean and the Middle East behind her and now uses her expertise to work as a researcher for film and TV, the novel has been described in a Saturday Age review as pure escapism in the mould of Dan Brown or Indiana Jones.’  But though I think the flawed main character has the same kind of charisma as Harrison Ford, I think The Emerald Tablet is infinitely better than anything by Dan Brown on which I confess to having wasted my time.

The book begins with a well-constructed introduction that includes all the central characters, alludes to the quest that drives the narrative, and provides just enough of the geopolitics of the 1956 Suez Crisis to bring the reader straight to the story: what is this mysterious tablet that is wanted by all the superpowers converging on the Middle East? Yes, it’s a reworking of an ancient theme: similar in concept to The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series et al, The Emerald Tablet is a quest for a power that in the right hands can protect the world and in the wrong hands would destroy it.  The emerald tablet, hidden somewhere in the Middle East, is thought to hold the secret of alchemy, which is not, historically, (as most people wrongly think) about the transmutation of metals i.e. from lead to gold, but was aimed at the production of the fabled ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, which really had nothing to do philosophy but was supposed to bestow spiritual wealth and immortality.  (See The Sceptical Chymist at The Logical Place if you want to know more about this.)  In this novel, it’s the possibility of nuclear knowledge in the wrong hands that makes the quest credible for a 21st century reader, and it’s the chemistry between Ben and Essie that makes for interesting reading.

Anastasios builds a complex character in Ben.  Like his mansion, he is a handsome edifice that had seen better days. He’s obviously beddable, but not suitable for long term commitment because he’s built for adventure.  As Fiona soon finds out. She’s despatched by page 53, berating herself for being sucked into his vortex and calling him out as a self-destructive narcissist. She agrees that she’ll be safer leaving him, but not in the way that he — in the frame for murder, in a country that wants a culprit rather than justice — means it.  Fiona’s indignant departure sets up the possibility of romance between Ben and Essie, but previous betrayals muddy the waters and maybe there’s a Book #3 before they resolve things one way or another?

Not all the characters believe in the mumbo-jumbo.  After what happened in wartime Crete to his wife and son, Ben has no belief in a benevolent god, and he knows from his own actions that armed conflict makes both sides do terrible things to one another, so no one can be trusted.  This makes for an interesting exchange between Ben who favours scientific theory, in opposition to Sebile who wants the Good Guys to find the tablet.  She claims alchemy as respectable, quoting Isaac Newton as an adherent.  He wasn’t, actually, he was just a hobbyist, exploring out of curiosity because chemistry was not a mature science at that time And unlike the alchemists known to history who — to cover up the fact that their ‘experiments’ didn’t actually discover anything except that they didn’t work — published their ‘findings’ in strange codes with mystic symbols and arcane whatnot, Newton published only his real science, never anything on alchemy.  (Again, if keen, see The Sceptical Chymist in the section on the History of Western Alchemy).  But Sebile believes in the powers conferred by the tablet and is motivated by a desire to ensure it stays in the right hands.  Ben just wants to make money out of it.

The Emerald Tablet is Book #2 of the Benedict Hitchens series, and I haven’t read The Honorable Thief.  It seems not to matter in this well-crafted plot. Ben and Essie have a back story which has left them as professional rivals still carrying a torch for one another.  Essie teams up with the Brits in cahoots with a French Nazi collaborator because both France and Britain need access to the Suez Canal to reach their colonial possessions, while the American Ben, trying to shake off a trashed reputation because he had been involved in the illegal sale of ancient artefacts, teams up with a Turkish pal and an assortment of professional contacts in the Middle East.   Then there’s the Americans who are posturing about being anti-colonialist but are actually siding with Egypt because they want to humiliate the Brits; the Israelis are tagging along with France and Britain because they want the Arabs put in their place, and the Soviets are there, well, because they’re Soviets and that makes them very good at being Thugs when it’s called for.  These rivalries and betrayals allow for a number of gruesome deaths which are a matter of regret for the Good Guys.  (Except when it’s rough justice for personal vengeance and the moral high ground, as it is on a couple of occasions for Ben and Essie).

This is the kind of book propelled along by lucky breaks for protagonists and their pursuers; clues turn up in convenient places; maps and symbols align; and there are chases, and gun fights, and ancient artefacts used as weapons.  (There are also some revolting sex scenes that I could have done without).  It kept me entertained for a good couple of days because it’s a thriller for a thinking person. I bet it would make a beaut film too, with Richard Roxborough looking suitably rumpled as Ben, and Isla Fisher as Essie (doing that excellent scornful pout that she does).  And maybe Jacob Rees-Mogg in a guest appearance as the anachronism from the British Foreign Office…

Update 9/8/19: You can find out more about the author at her website.

Author: Meaghan Wilson Anastasios
Title: The Emerald Tablet (Benedict Hitchens series #2)
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2019, 404 pages
ISBN: 9781760552633
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Available from Fishpond:The Emerald Tablet: A Benedict Hitchens Novel 2


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place and commented:
    This review contains a link to ‘The Sceptical Chymist’ essay on this blog.


  2. Funny, I had a feeling when you told me you were reading an adventure book, I thought it might have been this one!


    • You must be psychic!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have the first one on my tbr. Something about the description rang a bell for me.


        • Ah! When you’ve read it, you can fill me in on the shenanigans between the two of them!
          (I liked this one, but not enough to read Bk 1 as well)

          Liked by 1 person

          • It’s one that I’ll need to be in the right mood for. Not my usual style, but I can still see myself enjoying it.


            • Yes, as I said just today on another blog, there are times when we want some light reading, and this one is perfect for that.
              In fact, it’s making me want to hunt out a copy of the first Indiana Jones…

              Liked by 1 person

              • It’s put you on an adventure binge!


                • Armchair adventure – it’s too cold today even to venture out to check the vegie patch. (We have high level anxiety about the fate of some cauliflower seedlings with a ruthless possum on the prowl!)

                  Liked by 1 person

                • Possums! I understand your concern.


                • Last year we had a beautiful big perfect cauliflower ready to harvest (and until you’ve had one fresh from the garden you don’t really know what cauli tastes like) and overnight the possum ate an entire half of it.

                  Liked by 1 person

                • My grandfather used to grow them, all sorts of veges, he had a huge patch. Down in Victoria (where I grew up). You can grow good veges down there in your backyard. Everything was always so fresh and full of flavour!

                  Liked by 1 person

  3. […] my concerns were misplaced. The review of The Emerald Tablet on ANZ LitLovers is an absolute corker. Apparently, my book is “a thriller for a thinking person”, […]

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think nuclear secrets are in enough wrong hands already. Series and quests, and mock ancient religions, and chases and shootings are not for me. Not even for relaxing. (yes, I admit I checked out Dan Brown when he was in all the papers. And Umberto Eco).


    • I *loved* Umberto Eco. You’re surely not putting him in the same league as Brown?????


      • I could see I was leaving myself open to that. No, Eco is worth the effort.


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