Onyx reviews: The Rule of
Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
The Rule of Four is regularly compared to The Da Vinci Code because the two
books feature characters solving complex centuries-old riddles. That's the
extent of their similarity, though. The Rule of Four is not a page-turner. Every
chapter doesn't end with a cliffhanger and the characters do not traipse across
Europe pursued by homicidal members of ancient cabals. It shares more with Donna
Tartt's The Secret History and The Name of the Rose than with Code.
This is a good thing.
The title refers to one of the fictional puzzles hidden in the (real) 15th
century Hypnerotomachia Poliphili ("the world's longest book about a man
having a dream"), but it also alludes to the ending reign of four friends
preparing to graduate from Princeton.
The seniors are as unlike as any four friends could be. The narrator is Tom
Sullivan, whose father spent his academic career obsessed with solving the
Hypnerotomachia puzzle. His one contribution was a small book recounting the
discovery of a letter and a diary that shed light on the manuscript's putative
author, Francesco Colonna. Sullivan senior expected his treatise to solidify his
academic career; instead, it was derided as literary quackery.
Paul Harris, likewise obsessed with unraveling the Hypnerotomachia, sought Tom
out during their freshman year because he recognized his name from the
dedication in his father's book. With Tom's reluctant assistance, the duo makes
the first real progress in cracking the puzzle in centuries. The enigmatic book
issues a siren's call to all who fall within her reach. Tom is sometimes caught
up in her spell and, at other times, determined not to repeat his father's life
Pulling him in other directions are his girlfriend, Katie, and his future course
after graduation. Should he accept a lucrative job with a startup computer
company or continue his education? Katie recognizes the Hypnerotomachia's
allure, resenting the book's power over Tom. He goes for weeks doing little more
than working on its seemingly intractable codes. He barely has time left over
for his own studies and his uninspired senior thesis about Frankenstein, let
alone for her.
The Rule of Four does have intrigue. A library assistant is murdered after he
gives Paul access to a document that has been missing for many years, a diary
that was the source of acrimony among a triumvirate of Renaissance
scholars—including Tom's father—who once collaborated on their research before
becoming bitter rivals. The killing raises the book's stakes because someone is
so obsessed by the Hypnerotomachia that he is willing to kill to preserve its
secrets for himself.
The Rule of Four is a character-driven tale of friendship, curiosity, drive,
ambition and the need young adults have to discover their own identities apart
from those of their parents and friends. It's not a perfect book. Some of the
campus regulations seem artificially contrived to allow the characters to
perform outlandish acts without fear of being caught, and Tom's devotion to
Katie doesn't always seem sufficient to explain why he would forego working on
the ancient puzzle, especially when Paul is on the verge of solving it. The
staging is occasionally confusing, with hours worth of activities packed into
what can only be a brief period of time.
Still, this is an enviable and accomplished first work by the duo of writers, a
satisfying literary thriller packed with just enough history that readers should
come away feeling both educated and entertained.
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