For the last year or so THE DA VINCI CODE has been the big buzz book in the book biz, and for good reason: it was a riveting thriller, chock full of interesting historical and biblical facts (and fiction) that left the reader with unanswerable, unshakable questions regarding Christianity and art history. It was (is) one of those books that stays with you for a long time and sparks many a great conversation amongst Dan Brown disciples (not to mention the raging debate that followed among theologians and historians).
When a book is THAT big and leaves such a strong literary afterglow, the books that immediately follow are often letdowns, pale cousins of THE big buzz book. So I was more than pleasantly surprised when a few months I came across a review copy of a book by two newcomers that seemed a promising successor to Brown's crown. Childhood friends Ian Caldwell, a Princeton graduate, and Dustin Thomason, a Harvard graduate, teamed up after college to write THE RULE OF FOUR, a novel based on the mystery of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a Renaissance text that has vexed scholars throughout history.
The story revolves around two college roommates, Thomas Sullivan and Paul Harris, who are brought together as much by coincidence as by fate. Tom is the son of a long-dead scholar who devoted his life to uncovering the secrets behind the Hypnerotomachia. Paul, an orphan, is obsessed with the enigmatic text and spends four years at Princeton trying to fill in the voids left by Tom's father and his fellow academics. Tom falls into the book's lure and accompanies Paul during long hours of poring over source documents and translation, until he comes to his senses and sees what his mother had told him about the book all along: it "may never have had much outward charm, but it has an ugly woman's wiles, the slow addictive tug of inner mystery."
Paul's search continues, pushed on by a mentor (a former colleague of Tom's father) and a graduate student who is also fascinated by the text. When a revealing diary is found, someone is murdered on campus and their dorm room is ransacked, the race is on to learn as much as they can about the hidden crypt that lies at the heart of the text.
If the comparison to THE DA VINCI CODE and the plot synopsis isn't enough to get you to read this novel, how about this: THE RULE OF FOUR is beautifully written. It is hard to believe that this is the first book by these two young authors. Seasoned veterans would envy the marvelously crafted sentences, vivid images and powerful metaphors that fill the pages of Thomason and Caldwell's novice novel.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on June 28, 2005