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The Hypnerotomachia and the Rule of Four (book review)

"The Rule of Four" is a first-person narrative by Tom Sullivan, a final-year student at Princeton. Tom's father, who died in an accident in which Tom himself was also injured, was obsessed with an obscure book called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. This book, published in Italy in 1499, actually exists (and the multi-lingual text is now available on the Internet). It appears to be a novel recounting the dreamlike adventures of the title character Poliphili but this is really a pretext for the inclusion of all kinds of intellectual puzzles; it is illustrated by elaborate woodcuts depicting the events in the story.

Tom's friend Paul is similarly obsessed and he and Tom work together to try to discover the secret which they believe lies at the heart of the book. But matters take an ugly turn when a fellow researcher is murdered; Paul's life now appears to be in danger as well, while Tom's involvement casts a shadow over his otherwise idyllic relationship with his girl friend. Eventually, however, a solution to the central mystery of what the book is about does emerge.

Inevitably, numerous reviewers have compared this novel to The Da Vinci Code. Not having read that book I ahall not do so myself but I'm willing to accept the view of others that this is better. I found the book to be readable enough to while away some lengthy delays at airports but not much more than that. This is a pity because I think it could have been better. The story unfolds against a background of student life at Princeton; many of the allusions are likely to be obscure to non-American readers and the relevance of much of this stuff to the main theme of the book is pretty slight. Its impact might have been greater if its length were cut by about half.

The editing has been unsatisfactory in other ways too. In several places words are hyphenated illogically in the middle of lines, which suggests direct print setting from a word-processed script, and Tom has an irritating habit of writing "would've", "might've" and so on even outside direct speech passages. However, I was at least intrigued enough to want to know more about the Hypnerotomachia.

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