Tom Sullivan, about to graduate from Princeton, is haunted by the violent death of his father, an academic who devoted his life to studying one of the rarest, most complex and most valuable books in the world. Coded in seven languages, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an intricate mathematical mystery and a tale of love and arcane brutality, has baffled scholars since 1499.
Tom's friend Paul is similarly obsessed and when a long-lost diary surfaces, they finally seem to make a breakthrough. But only hours later, a fellow researcher is murdered and the two friends suddenly find themselves in great danger. Working desperately to expose the book's secret, they slowly uncover a Renaissance tale of passion and blood, a hidden crypt and a secret worth dying to protect.
Caldwell and Thomason's intriguing intellectual suspense novel stars four brainy roommates at Princeton, two of whom have links to a mysterious 15th-century manuscript, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. This rare text (a real book) contains embedded codes revealing the location of a buried Roman treasure. Comparisons to The Da Vinci Code are inevitable, but Caldwell and Thomason's book is the more cerebral and better written of the two: think Dan Brown by way of Donna Tartt and Umberto Eco. The four seniors are Tom Sullivan, Paul Harris, Charlie Freeman and Gil Rankin. Tom, the narrator, is the son of a Renaissance scholar who spent his life studying the ancient book, "an encyclopedia masquerading as a novel, a dissertation on everything from architecture to zoology." The manuscript is also an endless source of fascination for Paul, who sees it as "a siren, a fetching song on a distant shore, all claws and clutches in person. You court her at your risk." This debut novel's range of topics almost rivals the Hypnerotomachia's itself, including etymology, Renaissance art and architecture, Princeton eating clubs, friendship, steganography (riddles) and self-interpreting manuscripts. It's a complicated, intricate and sometimes difficult read, but that's the point and the pleasure. There are murders, romances, dangers and detection, and by the end the heroes are in a race not only to solve the puzzle, but also to stay alive. Readers might be tempted to buy their own copy of the Hypnerotomachia and have a go at the puzzle. After all, Caldwell and Thomason have done most of the heavy deciphering all that's left is to solve the final riddle, head for Rome and start digging.