Who was Christopher Columbus? Was he Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, or something else entirely? Commoner or royalty? Christian or Jew? There’s more controversy and discussion of these topics than most people know about – I adore historic controversy, and I had no idea about a lot of these theories. Dos Santos has written a novel that asks all these questions, and tries to answer them.
Codex 632 has a lot in common with The DaVinci Code. Unfortunately, it’s going to be compared with The DaVinci Code a lot, and it really doesn’t measure up. The premise is solid: Martinho Toscano, a renown historian hired by an American foundation to research the discovery of Brazil, stumbles on something big, and dies before he can deliver his report. Thomas Noronha, historian and cryptographer, is hired to take his place. Noronha has to decode Toscano’s notes, and they lead him ultimately to the “true identity” of Christopher Columbus.
Dos Santos obviously believes what he’s writing about. The research has been done, and dos Santos goes into a good deal of detail. Unfortunately, too much of this research is fed to the reader as dialog; Noronha meets regularly with his employers via telephone, and explains everything to them. I found myself amazed that a foundation that specializes in North American history was so uninformed about so many aspects of Columbus’ life. Noronha has to explain almost every detail of his research to people who should know at least a little bit of what he’s telling them. The “exposition by dialog” treatment made me feel like I was reading a textbook rather than a novel.
Dos Santos introduces two subplots, apparently in an effort to make Noronha a more sympathetic character. First, we meet his daughter, who has Downs Syndrome. Noronha obviously loves his daughter, and is devoted to her, but the relation to the main plot isn’t realized until the very end of the book, so this subplot ends up being a distraction. The resolution was also a bit abrupt and disappointing to me.
The second subplot involves Noronha’s affair with one of his students. It was obvious the minute the student walked into his classroom what was going to happen, so I wasn’t shocked as much as disappointed. After painting Noronha as a man devoted to his family, especially his daughter, he fell into adultery rather quickly. I had decided that the girl, Lena, was intricately involved in the quest for Columbus’ true identity and would interfere with Noronha’s research, but I was disappointed. The resolution to this subplot was also a bit abrupt; it seemed as if dos Santos decided he didn’t really like the subplot anymore and wanted to get rid of it. There is so much more that could have been done with both subplots that their handling was very disappointing to me.
The bad-boys of the Middle Ages the Knights Templar show up, of course – they’re a requirement in any good conspiracy novel, after all. But their role is a bit limited, and much more emphasis is placed on the use of Kabbalahistic writing and code, which is far more interesting and unique. That aspect of the book was refreshing – Kabbalah isn’t something that’s used very often, even in conspiracy books. I’ve often wondered why that is; I’m guessing it’s the unwillingness to do research on the subject. Dos Santos’ use of Kabballah was almost enough to make me overlook the books’ shortcomings. There’s a lot that can be done with this plot — unfortunately, Codex 632 falls a bit short.
As I read Codex 632, I couldn’t help but think about what a great alternate reality game (ARG) it would make. Conspiracy, complex cryptology – it has all the trappings. But a great ARG doesn’t always make a good novel, and unfortunately Codex 632 falls just a bit short. In paperback, this might make a good beach book for people who enjoyed The DaVinci Code, but my only recommendation here is to check it out at your local library if you’re curious.