Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.
Have you ever wondered what would happen to the Indiana Jones movies if they replaced Harrison Ford with a Mediocre White Man? I mean, other than that time they put MWM patron saint Sam Witwicky in the movie. Do you think the Illuminati and the Lizard Pope should join forces and wear special jackets? Have you ever submitted “Aliens” as a write-in candidate on a presidential ballot? Most of all, would you watch a documentary about the pyramids narrated by Kirk Cameron? If you answered yes to any of these questions, The Crystal Sphinx by G. D. Talbot is the book for you. Also you’re weird.
“As Arthur drove closer to the university, he began to sigh more and more.”
Our trepid hero, Professor Arthur Tomat, has a dream about a Mayan grandpa stabbing, and a little girl who mutters clues. Technically, this is not a prologue, so I’ll allow it, but it’s a shaky start. He wakes up and we get to learn something about him as he goes about his morning routine. A middle aged untenured academic, he seems pretty dissatisfied with his life. Despite his mediocrity, he reminds himself in the mirror that he still has some muscle tone, and needs to find a wife to make him feel young again. Ladies, please form an orderly line. He sits down to breakfast and has a little chat with his grandpa. Who is dead. And in an urn. He has a conversation with an urn. OK, I need to know: who are these urn people? I see them on TV, but do they exist in real life? Are there really people who want to bring the cemetery experience into their own home? If you or someone you know talks to urns, we need to chat. I guess it’s useful for exposition, so maybe it’s just a useful trope.
During breakfast, a morning news show explains why Arthur is in such a dour mood. In an interview with a peppy morning show host, a representative of a Christian archaeological organization calls him a phony, and his grandpa too. The guest just keeps hitting the poor man and his dead grandpa with haymakers while the host asks weirdly leading, catty questions about how much of a phony he is. Newly discovered Mayan tablets in Africa have cast doubt on the integrity of the work Arthur has done on the Mayan civilization, and now everyone hates him and agrees that he smells bad. It’s a helluva good morning. Professor Eeyore mopes his way over to the University where he is probably going to get fired for being an alleged phony, taking a moment to mourn for his precious parking spot.
Arthur is a professor of “Ancient and Dead Languages.” I’m here to tell you, that’s not a department. Unfortunately, the traditional name for departments like this is almost as weird: Classical and Semitic Languages. Whatever, he’s a professor of Ozymandias plaques and shouting at Aziz for more light. His students apparently watched the same morning news program, because they cannot settle down to a nice morning of studying ancient and/or dead languages until Arthur explains the exposition to them all over again. It turns out, he and his grandpa discovered some artifacts that suggest a connection between the Mayans (who are said to live in “South America,” despite the fact that most people in the book appear to be Guatemalans who should know better) and ancient Egyptians at some point in prehistory. That’s right. Buckle your seat belts and adjust your tin foil hats. We are going full-on History Channel in this book.
“Their stares made him feel uncomfortable, so he stared at the ground until they went back to facing each other again.”
Despite having spent enough money on a world history education to buy an island in the French Antilles, I will refrain from critiquing the whole Maya/Egypt thing. I am willing to accept that ancient Egyptians founded Jack-in-the-Box, so long as I get a fun adventure story out of it. Of course, Arthur is presenting all this with the tacit acceptance that his work has been discredited, even though the reader knows this is all going to be true before long, so he’s not really giving me “fun adventure” energy. After Arthur gives a desultory run down of his life’s work to his students, “Dean Romero, the dean of the college,” whisks him away to have a courageous conversation about how on thin ice Johnson he is, about the future of his employment at the university, and how there isn’t any starting immediately please leave. Arthur is bummed that he lost his job and reputation, but relieved that class is over. It’s like a whirlwind of emotion, but tiny and inconsequential. It’s like a dancing plastic trash bag of emotion. It’s like… if a snail could be depressed, but also benefit from the wage gap.
Now that we have dismantled the protagonist’s life and given him nothing to lose, it’s time for the story to begin. Arthur notices a “large Black man” looking at him and proceeds to be afraid of this man for the duration of the book. Brutus works for the Christian archaeological organization that worked so hard to discredit him and, to Arthur’s surprise, offers him a lucrative employment opportunity. Arthur accepts the shadowy offer of millions of dollars from a man he hopes “won’t get mad,” and is whisked away on a private jet.
They land in the Iraqi desert, and Flat-as-Indiana Jones gets a VIP tour of the facility and its discoveries. There was something to his grand father’s research after all, and this hilariously massive and well funded church is pulling amazing discoveries out of the ground on a daily basis. There is golden oil that powers mysterious artifacts, colorful fruit that improve a person’s physical and mental abilities to superhuman levels, and Mayan documents to decipher. Arthur is dodging the dangerous Black man who reminds him of the wild dogs on campus, and enjoying the Christians’ excellent charcouterie (seriously, who are these people?), when he sets up his living quarters and delivers the punchline. The man still has the urn. He brought his grandpa’s urn in his luggage to an undisclosed location. How am I supposed to even when I read something like that? Thank God I wasn’t drinking water.
“Arthur felt very uneasy every time Brutus walked by or worst when Brutus was behind him. He felt like if Brutus had the chance, he would kill him or at least hurt him in some way.”
And that’s Act I. Will Arthur decode the secret Mayan inscriptions? Will he vindicate his grandfather by authenticating his most controversial discovery, the titular crystal sphinx? Will he ever address his exoticizing fetish for Black men? Does the urn talk back? Why did I spend over a decade getting two useless history degrees? The book does a great job of setting up a hook for the main body of the plot. I have to admit I was engaged the whole way through, although in my usual way of staring at the page in total incomprehension. I didn’t even talk about the quirky team of experts, each with their own specialty and foreign accent. I didn’t count the number of times people begin their sentences with “well,” like everyone in Guatemala is secretly Ronald Reagan. There’s a lot going on here. Like, A LOT, a lot. I’m not ready to say The Crystal Sphinx is… good. The writing is repetitive and not well edited. But it’s constantly surprising, and the length is about perfect for a story like this. At four dollars on Kindle, it’s worth it if you’re into tongue-in-cheek adventure stories and pop pseudo-history.
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