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Onyx reviews: Codex by Lev Grossman

Codex, by Time book critic Lev Grossman, is a high-tech entry in the genre of quests to find historical texts containing hidden messages, akin to The Name of the Rose. A codex, as New York financier Edward Wozny comes to learn, is a fancy name for a book, though the term is normally reserved for a bound set of handwritten pages.

Edward has just been promoted to the London office of his financial investment company. He receives a strange request from the Wents, the duke and duchess of Bowmry, for whom he previously performed some impressive-and profitable-financial legerdemain. They want him to catalog several crates of valuable old books unopened since they were shipped from England during World War II.

In passing, the couple's assistant asks Edward to keep his eye out for any books by a 14th century author named Gervase of Langford. Edward considers his assignment a rather menial task, but he is soon caught up in the search for one book in particular, one that many experts believe never existed. With the reluctant help of Margaret, a doctoral student doing her dissertation on Gervase, Edward searches for clues among the crates, as well as at a private library that has an uncataloged collection of Bowmry books.

Edward soon learns that he is caught in the middle of a battle between the duke and duchess. For reasons she won't reveal, the duchess is desperate to find A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians; the duke exerts his not-insubstantial influence to dissuade Edward from continuing his search. Grossman adds a modern dimension to the story in the form of an interactive open-source adventure game called MOMUS that Edward plays to pass the time when nothing else seems to be happening. As he delves deeper into the fantasy world of his computer, he is astonished to discover that elements of the game seem to overlap with his real-world quest for the Gervase codex.

Though he is due in London in two weeks, Edward finds himself in a spiritual malaise, uninterested in things financial and unmotivated to put his affairs in order for the move. Margaret, who at first disbelieved rumors of the codex's existence, becomes more obsessed with finding the book than Edward, perhaps because it will jump-start her languishing thesis. Their research leads her to believe that a hidden message within the codex contains a dark secret about the duke's ancestors. If the book exists and they can find it, though, they may not be able to find or decode the message.

The first seven-eights of Codex is a compelling and engrossing thriller, though it lacks any concrete deadlines to give it the urgency of The Da Vinci Code. Edward has his impending job change, but he easily shuffles that schedule around. Neither is there much personal risk-no one threatens bodily harm if Edward continues his search, and no one seems likely to die if he succeeds or fails. In spite of this, Grossman keeps the story interesting. Though he takes a few jabs at popular fiction, Codex is a page-turner.

Where it takes a turn for the literary is in the closing, which is of a type favored by French filmmakers. Readers might see it coming, but when it does, many will feel like the author has treated both Edward and his readers rather shabbily. The disappointing ending robs the book of some of its considerable charm.

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