Am posting (and back-dating) this review I wrote a couple of years ago, so I can link it to a new post on The Geographer’s Library.
One of the best things about the The Rule of Four, the latest "intellectual thriller" to capture the imagination of Western publishers and readers, is how it manages to retain interest despite being occasionally ponderous, and despite not having a major cliffhanger in any conventional sense of the word. These two things set it apart from Dan Brown’s phenomenally successful The Da Vinci Code, to which it has inevitably been compared. Much of the success of this book will, in fact, rest on the increasing popularity of the "break the code" sub-genre, which the Brown thriller has given new life. But the comparison is a superficial one. The Rule of Four is a weightier, more demanding read, concerned less with breathless expositions than with reflections on time and relationships, and on how one affects the other.
Both books have a strong Renaissance connection, this one more so. In The Da Vinci Code, hidden meanings in Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings helped facilitate extrapolations on the life of Christ. Here, the whole point is the Renaissance period, when "the greatest cultural heroes in all of Western history lived together, in the same small city, at the same time". The plot-mover in The Rule of Four is a real book -- the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii -- which was written in seven different languages and published under mysterious circumstances in Florence in 1499. Seven men -- across two generations -- find themselves drawn into the labyrinth of this enigmatic treatise. The narrator, Tom, is a Princeton undergraduate who has had a troubled relationship with the book -- little wonder since Tom’s late father was among those obsessed with unravelling its secrets, and had died in a car crash shortly after one of his theses was roundly dismissed.
Cut to the present, and Tom finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the Hyperotomachia’s hypnotic fold thanks to his friend Paul, who has set himself single-mindedly to cracking the book’s codes. (Paul is obsessed all right. A sample of messages taped to his room walls: "Phineus son of Belus wasn’t Phineus king of Salmydessus, says one. Check Hesiod: Hesperethousa or Hesperia and Arethousa?, says another. Buy more crackers, says a third.")
"There are so few times in a person’s life when a single great friend comes around, that it almost seems unnatural when three come around all at once," muses Tom. The other two friends are Charlie and Gil - nicely fleshed out characters, but for the purpose of the plot little more than Hardy Boy sidekicks. The main focus of the story is on Paul and Tom, along with Richard Curry and Vincent Taft, one-time friends of Tom’s deceased father, who still have issues pending with the Hyperotomachia.
The first 100 pages establish the mood and setting, with a nicely etched picture of life at the university; but this part is also likely to be the hardest to get through if what you’re looking for a racy ride. The action -- read analyses, interpretations and riddles -- takes some time to begin, and occupies the middle section of the story. However, first-time authors Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason make it obvious that suspense isn’t their priority, by making all the major revelations less than three-fourths of the way through.
As mentioned, you won’t find a conventional cliffhanger here; no sinister villains stepping out of the shadows, pistol in hand. In fact, towards the end it’s almost too muted, as if the authors eventually decided to underplay the thriller elements in favour of a more introspective narrative. And though the book ends on an -- almost incongruously -- upbeat note (expect a sequel), it’s the penultimate chapter, with its sorrowful, bleak tone, that leaves the lasting impression.
If one has to nitpick, one might say that too little time is spent on the deciphering of the book’s codes; and besides, since the average reader is unlikely to have even heard of the thing, we have to take almost everything the authors say at face value: there’s little scope for active reader participation. But then the Hyperotomachia can also be considered a red herring of sorts. The real point here is not so much the book itself - though the central secret would be of undoubted interest to Renaissance and/or art buffs - but the different ways in which it affects people and their relationships. There’s Tom and his agonised memories of his father, there’s his strained relationship with his girlfriend Katie - who sees the book as a rival - and there’s the underlying tension between Tom and Paul (and between Paul and everyone else, for that matter).
This book is better written than the Dan Brown thriller -- so much so in fact that the writing draws attention to itself at times; and while that is usually self-defeating, it manages not to be a serious limitation in this case. Paul’s intensity is mirrored by the meticulous attention to detail of the authors. Their phrasing is often very striking -- nothing is given a casual go-by, there are painstaking observations on almost everything -- but crucially it doesn’t ever become turgid. The authors never trade substance for style, managing to keep their feet on the ground for the most part.
The Rule of Four isn’t quite a page-turner, but stick with it; the payoff may not be as big as that of the Hyperotomachia but for the patient reader there’s much here to cherish and -- unusually for this genre -- to reread.