Since I often get asked for recommendations of books roughly in the same sub-genre as that one, here’s yet another: Jon Fasman’s The Geographer’s Library, which I’m halfway through (as I seem to be with any book I read these days!). Fasman’s book is about a reporter in a sleepy Connecticut town, who starts following leads on the (possibly suspicious) death of an Estonian history professor; this modern-day story is intercut with chapters on the provenance and tortuous history of 15 objects (ranging from an alembic to a pair of flutes to an ivory box) used in the process of alchemy, all of which are presumably linked to the dead man in some way. So add "geographer" and "library" to the list of words that can, in various combinations, be used to make up the titles for the historical thrillers so popular these days (other words include "history", "secret", "sect", "league" - and, of course, "code").
The thing about books in this genre, apart from their exotic appeal (you’ll find here a preponderance of terms like "gnostic sect", "sinister Albanian", "brooding cabal", "Ethiopian iconography", "royal herbalist" and even "Novgorodian merchants"), is that they provide casual readers with some form of erudition (or at least delusions of erudition) on subjects they wouldn’t ordinarily read about, while at the same time operating within an easy-to-read thriller format. Of course, it isn’t always that simple: some of the better ones (like The Historian, which I wrote about recently) are solid, thoughtful reads with a lot of merit outside the exotic framework. But it’ll be interesting to see how long this sub-genre can sustain itself.
Am undecided on The Geographer’s Library so far. It’s mostly well-written, with some amusing descriptions (when the protagonist swallows an oyster, it "travelled down my gullet like a refrigerated and reversed sneeze"), but some of the conversations are trite, over-explaining the characters and their motivations, in the manner of high-school dramas. Will wait to finish it before passing definite judgement. But what I’ve read so far is intriguing, and if you enjoyed The Rule of Four make this your next stop.
P.S. learnt a new word, "caduceus", which is: a) a winged staff with two serpents twined around it, carried by Hermes (Greek mythology); or b) An insignia modeled on Hermes's staff and used as the symbol of the medical profession. (You can see it on the book cover.)
Am going to use it to freak people out: "Hey, anyone seen my caduceus?"