The Rule of Four - Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason

The Rule of Four has been billed as "The Da Vinci Code" for thinkers. If you've read my review of The Da Vinci Code, you know that my opinion of that isn't very high, so any comparisons to Dan Brown worked against this book. However, my friend Elizabeth gave me a copy after she was done reading it, so I decided to give it a shot.

First, a little background: Caldwell and Thomason are childhood friends; one went to Princeton and the other to Harvard (and graduated the same year I did), so they're pretty young guys. This is their first novel. It's about the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an actual book published in 1499 which scholars had struggled with for a long time. The first full translation wasn't published until 1999.

Caldwell and Thomason use the Hypnerotomachia to create a mystery set at Princeton University. Tom, whose father was a Hypnerotomachia scholar, rooms with Paul, who is writing his senior thesis about the Renaissance text. The text seems like a stream-of-consciousness writing, and in the story the reason is because it's hiding all sorts of riddles, which the two students puzzle out throughout the book.

Of course, it wouldn't be a thriller without murder, chase scenes, a bit of romance, and anxious people hinting vaguely about conspiracies. And it wouldn't be a Princeton novel without eating clubs, laser tag in the steam tunnels, and Nude Olympics. In the end, it's a decent first novel and a fun romp through Renaissance history, but it's not great. It feels like a novel written by somebody fresh out of college, and when he tries to offer wisdom about time and friendship, it just seems ... well, like a college student trying to wax philosophical: it sounds really deep to college students, but just kind of silly when you get older. (And I'm not even that old.)

There were a few specific complaints I had about the book: First, it's in the present tense. It reverts to the past tense for flashback scenes, but the "present" is written in present tense, which seems to make sense when you consider it, but looks and sounds awkward when it's written out. It makes it sound a little like Dick & Jane books: "I pull on my jacket. I open the door. See Tom and Paul run, run, run." The other thing is that everything is SO SERIOUS. But I suppose that captures what it's like to be a college student—everything is fraught with meaning, and you feel so wise when you're finally a senior.

Given those complaints, here's why this book is better than The Da Vinci Code: it's a first novel. You gotta give them some credit for writing a decent mystery/thriller, no matter how juvenile it seems in places. Dan Brown has no excuse. The puzzles in it are things that you would actually need to have some knowledge about the Renaissance to solve, but this is the key: you're not expected to. The riddles are intended to be difficult to figure out, because otherwise they wouldn't have stood for 500 years. Dan Brown, however, writes riddles that are supposed to protect a vast secret, riddles that even a Harvard symbologist needs help solving, but I bet many readers of the book were able to puzzle out without any info outside of the book itself. Caldwell and Thomason include an author's note at the end where they explain which things were true and what they took liberty with, even going so far as to say that the Nude Olympics traditionally started at midnight, not late evening as it occurred in the book. Dan Brown, on the other hand, has an author's note saying that while the events are fiction, all the history is fact; yet plenty of the big secrets he "reveals" are things that have already been debunked. I could go on, but I'm sure I've ranted about The Da Vinci Code enough.

Would you enjoy this book? It depends. If you can put up with the college-boy attitude of the book, then it's a decent read, and maybe it'll get you interested in the actual Hypnerotomachia. If you just like mystery-thrillers that are inspired by Renaissance art and history, you'll probably find something to like here. If you want a really good book (and not just "good for a first novel"), try something else.

Fed to jonathan's brain | May 16, 2006 | Comments (1)


Excellently summarized!
Couldn't agree more. The tone of the book was very annoying. And I totally agree that they were soooooooooooooo serious all the time; you felt like really telling them to lighten up a bit. Overall, unsatisfying reading experience, but no more so than the truly crummy Davinci Code, which I bet will be a fine movie while remaining an utterly inexecrably written novel.

Posted by: Elizabeth at May 16, 2006 07:11 PM

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