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When the murder of an Ethiopian man covered with enigmatic tattoos roils the upper echelons of the Roman Catholic Church, Sister Ottavia Salina, head of the Restoration and Paleography Laboratory of the Vatican's Classified Archives, is called to interpret the symbolism of his "scarifications." Church officials inform Dr. Salina that the Ethiopian was but one of many who are stealing Ligna Crucis, relics of the original cross upon which Christ was crucified, from church reliquaries around the globe. The church charges her and two men—a captain of the pope's Swiss Guard, Kaspar Glauser-Roïst, and an Egyptian archeologist, Farag Boswell (whom she later falls for after 39 years of celibacy)—to retrieve the relics. Before you can say Da Vinci Code, the trio plunge into an eddy of intrigue and danger as they encounter a mysterious secret brotherhood and wend their way along a labyrinthine journey of initiation rituals—with clues provided by Dante's Divine Comedy. Asensi's first novel to be translated into English is formulaic, but readers with insatiable appetites for church history, secret societies and weird initiation rituals will find some delights. (Apr.)
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*Starred Review* Asensi's first novel to be published in English features a clandestine religious organization, a code contained in the work of a long-dead genius, a plucky heroine, and just the right combination of obscure history and plausible conjecture. Sound familiar? The Last Cato will inevitably draw comparisons to The Da Vinci Code, but this book is in many ways more compelling, if a bit less accessible. After Dr. Ottavia Salina, a nun working as a paleographer at the Vatican, is asked to decipher tattoos on the dead body of an "enemy of the Church" from Ethiopia, she soon discovers the deceased was tied up with the Staurofilakes, an ancient order who have sought to protect the True Cross and now seem to be stealing slivers of it from around the world. The key to tracking them down? Dante's Divine Comedy. Turns out that Dante was a member of the order himself, and that the notoriously dense Divine Comedy is a kind of coded guidebook to the order's rituals. Salina and a couple companions set off, with Dante as their guide, on a rollicking, round-the-world adventure. Some of the conjecture seems far-fetched, but the research is impeccable, and the behind-the-scenes Vatican life feels utterly authentic. As engrossing as it is intelligent, this just might be the next big book in the burgeoning religious thriller subgenre. John Green
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