The Rule of Four

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Okay, I'm a sucker for this kind of "intellectual" mystery--in which some document or artifact or object or person from the past is gradually revealed in a series of unfolding puzzles to show a great surprise. The Club Dumas did this whole thing to perfection. The much reviled Da Vinci Code did it with great success in the puzzles, perhaps less in the prose, and none whatsoever with the dimwits who piloted their way through the see-through puzzles. This book, much like The Club Dumas makes no pretense of playing fair. There is a mystery, but you are just the witness watching it unfold. In that sense, Da Vinci Code was more amusing. However, the puzzle here centers around a real and quite arcane little book the Hypnerotomachia Poliphli (an abbreviated Jacobean/Elizabethan translation of which is available here.

There are just two points I wanted to make about the book. The first is the remarkably even-handed and even laudatory approach taken toward Savonarola, who was not dismissed as a madman or a lunatic by the characters, although the author of the Hypnertomachia has a somewhat different perspective. No axe to grind, Savonarola is important to the impetus of the story, but very fairly (more fairly, than in all honesty I could treat him) treated.

The second point that really struck me is how "young" the book seems. I wonder if I was ever as young as this book struck me. There is massive intellect, but absolutely no wisdom or gravitas or any sign of maturity amongst these college seniors. Now I know that college seniors are young--but the lack of substance of the people in this book was stunning, most particularly because the authors tried so hard to create a sense of substance, character arc, and change. There are attempts at philosophy that betray time and again the lack of any experience in the world of the authors. Clever but not sage, intelligent but not wise--there is a hollowness to the characters and to the whole world portrayed in the book. Ultimately it is a hollowness that has a truthful ring. If I could see myself in that time period I would probably be too embarrassed to speak of it. However, it struck me time and again as I was reading how very little depth there was here. The lack of substance was stunning, but on the other hand, entirely unnecessary to the book as a whole anyway, and perhaps that is why it made such an impression. This is a "farewell to college" bildungsroman that winds up being a trifle embarrassing.

However, if you want an interesting, intriguing, and fun beach-or-mountain getaway romp, this is a wonderful book for the cause. Another reader had mentioned that it is a cut-rate Secret History, and that is probably so, but The Secret History and The Little Friend are both much more potent than mere entertainment reading. The Club Dumas manages to tread the fine line in the middle making it a very high-brow beach read. But then, someday I'll write more about Perez-Reverte--his successes (many) and his dismal failure (Queen of the South.)

Overall--recommended as a light and mildly engaging read. Light fodder, probably a day-time toss-off for the dedicated readership of St. Blogs.

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Have you read anything by Charles Palliser? Or Iain Pears' 'Instance of the Fingerpost'? Or 'The Dante Club'? Or maybe 'Q' by Luther Blissett?

I got stuck on The Rule of Four. I just didn't care about any of the characters or the mystery. That was sad, because I actually helped proofread a few pages of the Gutenberg edition of the English translation. (I wasn't aware of its less savory side, as nothing like that happened in the parts I proofread. Heavily symbolic, yes.)

Perez-Reverte is lots of fun, but ultimately, he just writes the same female character over and over. I think he read too much Cabell at an impressionable age. Still, like Cabell, he definitely beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Dear Steve,

Yes, I've read The Quincunx and recall loving it at the time, I was unaware that Palliser had anything else. I've read An Instance of the Fingerpost along with Akutagawa's original Rashomon (I know, not exact parallels, but losts of similarity) I have, but have not read The Dante Club and I have not read Q. If they are of a similar form, I suspect I will enjoy them.

Dear Banshee,

It's probably a male thing, but I hadn't noticed the similarity of female characters. Frankly I'm surprised Perez-Reverte has any appeal for women whatsoever because his books strike me very much as things for a grown-up boy's clubhouse. I'll pay more attention as I begin to dive into the Captain Alatriste series. I do know that Queen of the South was seriously disappointing after some of the real greats.

Have either of you read Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind--treading the middle ground between this kind of novel and magic realism?



I read The Seville Communion and enjoyed it enough to think about getting whichever was his latest book at the time. Then I forgot about it, and now I'm sitting here trying to remember anything at all about The Seville Communion. It's coming back slowly.

A fair treatment of Savonarola would be enough to make me pick up a copy of The Rule of Four, though I'm likely to forget about it before I do.

"Frankly I'm surprised Perez-Reverte has any appeal for women whatsoever because his books strike me very much as things for a grown-up boy's clubhouse."

I have two brothers. I like adventure fiction. If I didn't read a lot of "boys' books" both then and now, that would be the surprising thing. :)

I've read The Club Dumas, The Flanders Panel, and The Fencing Master, all of which I liked pretty well. (Well enough to go see The Seventh Gate, but not well enough to buy any of them. The library is your friend.) I wasn't even aware of Queen of the South, because I got bored with The Nautical Chart. (Pretty much at the exact moment when I realized it was the same woman AGAIN.)

To be fair, though, Julia in The Flanders Panel seemed like a real person instead of an archetype.

Dear Banshee,

He now has two books in a "swashbuckling" series called Captain Alatriste. I've enjoyed everything except Queen of the South, which I thought deplorable in so many ways as to not be numbered. There's just a sly sense of fun and history in many of them. But I'll pay more attention in the future. Thanks for writing.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 6, 2006 7:37 PM.

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