* Prices may differ from that shown
The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. An ages old mystery with intriguing and exciting possibilities; a code hidden within a seemingly normal book. One that many have tried to decipher. Ultimately, a bit like the Da Vinci code - it's full of hypotheticals and guesswork. It still remains a bit of a mystery, and is a book that tells of a romance, but hides secret messages.
The Rule of Four is a novel by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, two friends who have an obvious intrigue and passion for such mysteries. Their tale focuses on four friends, brought together through their lives at college, who embark on a quest to unravel these mysteries and secrets, showing how something can get obsessive. There are two parts to the tale, really. That which happens involving the four friends, which is fast paced and exciting and easy to read; then there are the passages which focus on the Hypnerotomachia (HP). These parts are very laborious and crammed full of detail and intricate historical events and guesswork.
It's very much like the Da Vinci Code in terms of its secrets and there being a secretive villain, but where Dan Brown managed to include the historical elements in the tale itself, our pair of authors separate the two. This does give a bit of clarity to things in a way, but at the same time it makes for very frustrating reading. It really is hard to get stuck into a book when you're racing along with action and dialogue and then you suddenly get an intricate and detailed history theory lesson. They really don't spare you any details, and at times it's easy to forget that this is essentially a thriller based on two men's love for a book.
The plot focuses on Tom and his best friend Paul, with the former being the narrator and the book written in the first person. It's also in the present, which I always think adds to the pace of things. We get a fullish history of how Tom and Paul met, interspersed throughout the book, along with their friends Gil and Charlie. All stereotypes are included: the Ivy League rich boy, black athlete, regular guy and obsessed nerd; while the adults and professors involved in the students' studies of the HP are equally interesting in terms of their back stories. It's the sort of thing that you could easily imagine being made into a really good film were it well cast and with the right director.
There's an element of darkness mixed in with the obsessive nature of it all, and at times I was racing through the pages. I just wish that the authors had toned it down a little bit with the history lessons, although I understand the importance of the details along the way. When you get to the end, there a slight feeling of anticlimax, especially given the details that are shaped up. There are incidences throughout the present day action, and when a murder occurs following a revelation in the code cracking elements of the tale, it really sets things off at a good pace. There's an attempt at romance along the way which sort of fails a bit, and the focus is more on the young men's group dynamics as opposed to the other elements at times. The only thing that lets it down is the bogged down mix of the two types of writing style going on.
I don't know whether one author focused on the history and one on the present day action, but it certainly reads like two different authors. I firmly believe a lot of the error lies in the editing room, and although we can't know what goes on behind closed doors, it does seem like two disjointed novels woven together at different paces that could have been altered. Whether the authors put their feet down on the subject or whether it's just my inability to switch, I don't know, but what I'm sure of is that had the history element been quicker and less detailed or had the narrative been slower and more padded, I'd have enjoyed this a whole lot. Theoretical analyses of works such as this do interest me, but when frustration starts overtaking the enjoyment, it really is rather disappointing. I was glad to have read it, but wouldn't necessarily say it was worth waiting for or one to seek out.
The Rule of Four seems to be a book which has divided opinion very sharply. Some people regard it as little more than a Da Vinci Code cash-in, whilst others consider it superior to Dan Brown's ubiquitous book. Personally, I'm in the latter camp.
It is easy to see why The Rule of Four has caused this split, though. What you make of it will very much depend on how you approach it. If you want a rip-roaring roller coaster of a ride, a novel that races breathlessly from set-piece to set-piece, constantly placing its characters in positions of peril, you'll be sorely disappointed; The Rule of Four is far more considered in its approach, ambling along at a much more sedate pace. That's no bad thing, as the book is actually as much about its characters as it is about the "big secret" it reveals. A lot of time is spent examining the personal relationships between the four main characters and at times the "secret" seems almost tangential. It's clear that the authors place a great deal on the idea that our background and experiences exert a significant influence on who we are and how we react to people or situations. This actually gives the book more weight and a greater emotional impact than some of the other Da Vinci Code wannabes. It's an approach which leads you to care about the characters. We want them to succeed in their quest, but we also want them all to make it to the end of the book alive.
As mentioned, the "big secret" often takes a back seat, making it clear that it is not the only thing that is going on in the lives of these people. Again, some will find this disappointing - they will want a single minded quest to uncover the secret and a book filled with explosive action and dangerous situations. The Rule of Four is far more rooted in reality. Whilst dangerous situations do occur, these never feel silly or contrived. They feel like perfectly real and highly plausible events, not only within the context of this book, but in real life too. In general, the book had a far more realistic outlook and approach than many titles in this genre, and so was far more accessible and readable.
One of the weaknesses of the Da Vinci Code and its ilk is that they fall into two camps with regard to their central Macguffin. Either the revelation is so outrageous that it is preposterous and unbelievable; or you follow a huge trail of clues and when you finally get to the end, are left thinking "So what?", feeling a deep sensation of anti-climax. In this regard, The Rule of Four's definitely falls into the latter camp. It surrounds a mysterious book that most people will never have heard of and won't care about even if they have, whilst the "big secret" when finally revealed will be of interest only because it provides some sort of closure on the book.
But don't run away with the idea that The Rule of Four is dull. Despite its 500+ pages, it never feels that long. The authors have a very readable style and, because of the focus on character and realistic situations, you quickly find yourself caught up in their daily lives. Chapters are deliberately kept quite short, with regular breaks in the text, which adds to the readable style and you'll find yourself sweeping through the book with ease.
Of course, The Rule of Four is not a challenging read, nor a particularly intellectual one. It's just one of those nice books you can pick up and read whether you feel like a quick break or a longer read. It's not going to win any awards for literature or style, but it does keep you gripped and entertained more or less all the way through. The story rattles along at a great pace, giving you a pleasant, easy read. It's the perfect book for a long train journey or lounging around whilst on holiday - something you don't have to concentrate on too much, won't take you long to get through, but will give you plenty of enjoyment whilst you do.
True, towards the end, things do become a little overstretched, with the authors taking a little too long to bring events to a conclusion. This is a common complaint in modern fiction, driven by the perceived need to demonstrated "value for money" through the number of pages. As a result, there is a danger your attention could start to wander a little bit towards the end and a sharper, swifter conclusion would have served the book better.
On the whole, though, this is definitely one of the better "Da Vinci Code rip-offs" that now seem to flood the market with monotonous regularity. Not the best book in the world, but if you're looking for a nice, fun read, you could do a lot worse.
The Rule of Four
Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
Arrow Books, 2005
Available new from Amazon for £5.49 or used from 1p
© Copyright SWSt 2008
Rules to some are like legs are to the Mafia for breaking. The only things that Rule of Four is likely to break is you willingness to live. I personally blame The Da Vinci Code and the cash cow that it created. Every author with a manuscript that suggests even the smallest amount about an ancient puzzle gets the go ahead. This has lead to a huge influx of mediocre books onto the bestsellers list that give the reader little enjoyment. Some would say that this book has little in common with Da Vinci and to that I say nonsense! Behold a book that has a good central premise that ruins it by being boring (see I told you they were similar).
The Rule of Four is set far away from Renaissance Italy and is instead set entirely on the campus of Princeton in America. We follow two students, Paul and Tom, as they uncover information about a 500 year old puzzle hidden in a book called 'The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili'. By uncovering the secrets that have remained buried for so long the two students also unveiled old jealousies and anger amongst the scholars who have searched so long for the prize. Can Paul and Tom discover the true secrets behind the book whilst avoiding the accidents that seem to befall those that get too close?
The synopsis makes the book sound like it could be an interesting Indiana Jones' adventure. Unfortunately, the scholars of Princeton are not like the handsome and dashing Dr Jones. Paul is an introverted and shy young man more interested in books than people and Tom tries hard to be liked but does not know where his heart lies. Hardly, the ingredients for an entertaining action romp. This is because there is little action of the muscle involved in the book; more of the mind.
By trying to be overly clever The Rule of Four actually alienates the reader. With the Da Vinci Code most people know about Jesus so we can pretty much hang on with the story. However, in Rule it is more about the Renaissance in Italy that is well known but needs to be explained. This means that large chunks of the book follow dialogue between characters created to help the reader understand what is going on.
Coupled with these hefty sections of confusing dialogue is a more successful way of describing the past of The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili' in flashback. We follow the writer of the book and also some of the scholars as they work on it through time. This opens up some really interesting history elements to the plot. However, everything is undone as we revert to the present to listen to a bunch of dry scholars waffling on.
Another problem I have with the book is the fact that so much of 500 year old Italy has got to Princeton. At least The Da Vinci Code sets the story in the place that the history happened. Instead we rely on books and photos of things that are miles away. This creates moments of disbelief for the reader and puts an unwanted barrier between the characters and the elements they are looking for. I just could not believe that you could solve a case from so far away, especially as the historians here use more books than computers.
For all its negatives at its core The Rule of Four has an entertaining premise. There are elements of action that are fun and parts of the last third rattle along at a corking pace. However, Caldwell and Thomason were able to handle the sedate pace of the history elements well but the narrative soon comes of the rails towards the end. With a final conclusion that will leave many angry and dismayed with its ambiguous nature; perhaps the authors should have corrected their pacing before releasing the book? This book is similar in many ways to 'The Da Vinci Code' as they are both about ancient puzzles. However, 'The Rule of Four' is worse, and that is saying something as I felt 'The Da Vinci Code' was only average.
Authors: Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
Price: amazon uk - £5.59
play.com - £5.49
I will read more or less anything, as I consider that there are few books around that could be less interesting than the view out of the window on the London Underground. That said, there are certain books I avoid like the plague. Generally speaking, if hype suggests I should read a book because everybody else either is or has, I wont. This has kept me away from the whole of J. K. Rowlings Harry Potter series and stopped me from reading The Da Vinci Code, which could be a good or a bad thing, depending who I listen to.
Mind you, I did quite like the basic idea behind The Da Vinci Code. So when I happened across a copy of The Rule of Four, which was described by The Independent as The Da Vinci Code for people with brains, I figured it would be just my kind of thing. In theory, it has everything I look for in a book, promising to be an intelligent thriller without everyone telling me I should read it.
The Rule of Four is a book about a book; a fifteenth century text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which is supposedly written in seven different languages and contains coded messages which have remained unbroken since publication in 1499. Over those years, the book has claimed the hearts and minds of many scholars, all working at the book in vain.
Tom Sullivan is a man whose life has been touched by the book. His father was one of those scholars who tried to crack the codes and died before he could do so. Now his flatmate at Princeton, Paul, is attempting to do the same for his college thesis. However, there are scholars who have been working at the book since before Paul was born, with each of them wanting to be the first to reveal the secrets and prepared to stop at nothing to be first.
The book mostly follows Tom and Paul around campus, along with their other flatmates, Charlie and Gil. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is at the heart of everything they do; it is always there in the background and it shadows everything they do and everything that happens to them and affects the way that they are treated by various others around campus. As Paul gets closer to unveiling the secrets of the book, so violence comes closer to him and people start dying for the cause of the book, as happened some five hundred years before.
Im not so sure that I would describe The Rule of Four as an intelligent thriller. It is certainly a thriller with a more academic background than many, but the basic plot itself isnt a great deal different to anything else. When the story is concentrating on the secrets of the book and what theyre doing to unlock the codes, it does seem a little more intelligent than most, but the general events of the story are fairly standard; people are killing each other, theres just a different reason for it this time, is all.
The writing is very much the same as any other thriller novel as well. The characters seem to be secondary to the action and, whilst I found myself getting quite involved with the story as it related to cracking the secrets of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, I never really found myself engaging with any of the characters. Maybe part of this was that the situation and the setting they were in an American college seemed alien to me, not relating to my life or experiences in any way, but they just didnt seem well drawn enough to involve me emotionally in their struggles.
What The Rule of Four feels like is that the authors had a really great idea, based on something they may have learned in their own studies, but didnt know how to wrap it up into a decent read. In the end, theyve gone for the lowest common denominator and tried to bury the really smart parts inside a basic thriller novel package so that more people would read it and not put it down in disgust. The further the novel goes along, the more this seems to be the case, as if the idea wasnt quite big enough to even stretch out for a whole novel and had to be padded out a bit.
For all this, though, it is a good read. The idea behind it is very solid and whilst I didnt really care who cracked the secrets and who might have to get hurt along the way, I found myself very keen to find out exactly what the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili had been keeping to itself for the last five hundred years. This may not be quite what the authors had in mind, but at least theyve managed to prevent me from being bored on the way through, unlike a lot of thrillers around these days, which have a plot as two dimensional and as see through as the characters.
If youre into thriller novels, this will certainly be your kind of read. If youre a big fan of The Da Vinci Code or Robert Ludlum, I suspect you may enjoy this, although its more thoughtful and less all action. Either way, at prices from a penny from both eBay and the Amazon Marketplace, it cant hurt to give it a try. Id only suggest paying any more than this, such as £3.75 from Green Metropolis, £5.49 from Play or £5.59 from Amazon if youre a thriller fan in a big way and know youll enjoy this kind of thing.
Personally, I wouldnt consider these higher prices terribly good value. Thanks to the way part of the plot is about breaking codes, this is a book you can really only read the once, as there will be nothing left to surprise you a second time around. For this reason, this is a book to either buy very cheaply or borrow if you can, but if you like thrillers, definitely try to get your hands on it.
Tom Sullivan is about to graduate from Princeton. He's intelligent and popular, but haunted by the violent death several years earlier of his father, an academic who devoted his life to studying one of the rarest, most complex and most valuable books in the world. Since its publication in 1499, The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili has baffled scholars who have tried to understand its many mysteries. Coded in seven languages, the text is at once a passionate love story, an intricate mathematical labyrinth, and a tale of arcane brutality. Paul Harris, Tom's room-mate, has deeply personal reasons of his own for wanting to unveil the secrets the book hides. When a long-lost diary surfaces, it seems the two friends have found the key to the labyrinth - but when a fellow researcher is murdered only hours later, they suddenly find themselves in great danger. And what they discover embedded in the text stuns them: a narrative detailing the passion of a Renaissance prince, a hidden crypt, and a secret worth dying to protect.