Book Review: The Last Cato ***1/2
I have to say I’m very conflicted about this book. I enjoyed it, but there were a lot of places where I found it very hard to suspend my disbelief. The plot is that of the standard “religious thriller” (and no, Virginia, these have existed for as long as I’ve been reading - they didn’t begin with The Da Vinci Code). An expert (Dr. Ottavia Salina, a paleographer who also happens to be a nun) is asked to research aspects of a mysterious death, in this case the strange scarifications on a man who was killed in a plane crash, which seem to be linked to the theft of fragments of the “True Cross” from churches around the world. She is teamed up with Kaspar Glauser-Roist, a captain from the Pope’s Swiss Guard (who also happens to have a degree in Italian literature) and Farag Boswell, an Egyptian Coptic professor. They discover links to a 1500-year-old society whose mission is the guardianship of the cross, and following clues in Dante’s Divine Comedy, they travel the area around the Mediterranean undergoing the various initiation rituals that will enable them to locate the group.
The plot of the book was original and well-done, and the puzzles were intriguing. Often I found it hard to picture some of the scenes; this might have been the fault of the translation, which seemed a bit sloppy in places, but some diagrams also might have been helpful. There was also a lot of interesting information about the early days of Christianity, arcane subjects such as alchemy, and the Divine Comedy, needless to say. I do have to agree with at least one other reviewer, though, that the characters were not particularly well-developed, and did not grow much, although there were a couple of times that were obviously supposed to be life-changing moments for Ottavia, but in the end I didn’t feel that they lived up to their promise. The ending was a bit far-fetched, but on the whole I did enjoy the journey.
Here are some of the things that rather stretched my ability to suspend disbelief: 1) That these two incredibly well-educated people (Ottavia and Farag) are completely clueless about computers, and in her case at least, I mean completely; 2) That a paleographer who’s evidently in the top ranks of her profession apparently knows nothing about the techniques used to recover faded text - it’s not that she doesn’t know how these things are done, but that she doesn’t even appear to know that the techniques exist; 3) That another extremely smart, well-educated man (Glauser-Roist) doesn’t know the meaning of the word basileia; 4) Most unbelievable and essential to the plot, that a group existing in opposition to the Catholic Church is able to construct and maintain these huge, complicated structures in the midst of their enemy’s territory and keep their own people in charge of them without the Chuch ever finding out.