The Rule of Four,  by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

Three stars (of five)

Caldwell and Thomason debut with a novel that spans the nuances of Renaissance code breaking as much as modern life at an Ivy League school. As Tom Sullivan prepares to complete an undergraduate degree at Princeton, he’s forced to remember a horrible accident that killed his father years earlier. The reason, a thesis his roommate is composing on a rare and complex book, one the elder Sullivan spent much of his academic life trying to decipher. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published in 1499, has left scholars with headaches and curious mysteries in equal measure, its story and the clues embedded therein more challenging the deeper they are studied. An apparent love story, composed in several languages, the Hypnerotomachia actually presents mathematical challenges, artistic nuances, and linguistic labyrinths to the attentive code breaker. After learning of these codes, Sullivan realises that he cannot decode them alone, and turns to his roommate, Paul Harris, to succeed where Tom’s father failed. They work tirelessly to decode the story and discover its hidden meaning, while academics within Princeton’s elite try to sabotage the research, or take it as their own. Sullivan and Harris are soon pulled into the centre of the Hypnerotomachia and its explosive secrets. Whether they live long enough to reap the rewards is yet to be seen. A decent debut for both authors, who keep the pace high and the mysteries plentiful. 

In reading a review of the novel, someone called this novel’s premise akin to a Dan Brown plot. While there are some great storylines and equally mysterious deciphering aspects, I would defer to the master codebreaker, but still offer Caldwell and Thomason their due. The novel plods along and offers the reader some insight into the world of Princeton life, albeit from a narrator stuck in an existential tunnel, as well as a race to decode a wonderfully mysterious piece of Renaissance literature. The authors have done a great job in prefacing the times and putting the text in its best context, while wrapping the story in a mystery and encoding that in a cipher. Nuances throughout keep the reader wondering if all this could be real and if so, how could it have taken so long to unravel it. Caldwell and Thomason have kept their characters fresh, the story paced well, and the themes as realistic as possible. Great work for a first effort, though why it took so long for Caldwell to return to the scene remains a mystery best tacked by reading his next literary offering.

Kudos, Messrs. Caldwell and Thomason for this wonderfully entertaining and thought-provoking novel. While Renaissance was never my area of greatest interest, you have done well to pique my code-breaking interest.