It’s very tempting for me to write a scathing review of this book. I could rant about The Da Vinci Code-esque revisionist church history, and incite Christians everywhere to protest the book. But I won’t, for a few reasons.
One – like I could get more than a dozen Christians to actually listen to me, much less do what I want them to. Two – the book’s good.
The premise: there is a secret society — similar to the legendary Grail Knights — tasked with protecting the True Cross, on which Christ was crucified. They have infiltrated every part of the Church all over the world, protecting the fragments of the Cross that have been strewn all over Christendom, with one goal: To bring them all back together, under their control.
The book begins with a series of robberies, and a mysterious corpse. Pieces of the True Cross are being stolen, and the corpse is one of the thieves. He bears intricate body art — ritual scarification, the result of his induction into the mysterious group known as the Staurofilakes — the protectors of the Cross.
Vatican paleographer Ottavia Salina is called on to help investigate the crimes, and bring the Staurofilakes back into fellowship with the Catholic Church – by force, if need be. Accompanied by a member of the Swiss Guard and an atheistic professor, she begins her investigation. Aided by clues provided by Dante’s Divine Comedy, they move closer and closer to the mysterious group – even as they receive the very same ritual scars as the dead thief.
There is a growing sub-genre of religious fiction – the skeptical, gnostic-based thriller novel. The Da Vinci Code is, of course, the most famous example of this genre, and is responsible for its popularity today. The Da Vinci Code, though, was originally published in 2003, though — The Last Cato was originally published in 2001, in Spanish. So this is not an example of an author jumping on the bandwagon. It’s a wonderfully written story, with healthy doses of skepticism toward religion. The skepticism is not heavy-handed — in most cases, it’s mentioned in passing, with no ‘proselytizing’ as Dan Brown tends toward in his book. Readers would be well-advised to get a copy of The Divine Comedy as a reference as they read this book, but the important passages are quoted in the book, so that’s not essential. You’ll never read Dante the same way again, I can promise you that.
Characterization in the book isn’t overt or heavy-handed, but by the end you feel like you really know these three people. You sympathize with Ottavia’s struggles and her anguish over the direction her life seems to be taking her. By the end, you’re pondering the irony in her statement that “Life doesn’t drag you along if you don’t let it.”
One minor quibble with the book, or actually the translation. Latin names are often mishandled, it seems. Eusebius is left Eusebio, for example, almost as if the Spanish name had been left alone, rather than being translated to the proper Latin name. A minor detail, at best, but it did grate on the church historian in me to see familiar names rendered incorrectly.
One reason I would start a protest over the book is that the result of such action seems clear – people will read the book to see what all the fuss is about. And this is a book that deserves to be read. And it didn’t borrow anything from Holy Blood, Holy Grail. That in itself deserves high praise indeed. I didn’t read The Da Vinci Code, but if this is the type of book publishers are picking up because of Dan Brown’s success, then we owe him thanks. Just remember that the book was written two years before Brown’s book, and you’ll enjoy it even more.