Last Cato Hardcover – Apr 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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As an English major, I was familiar with Dante's The Divine Comedy - not my favorite work - but Dante did for this quest what Leonardo did for Brown's book. The quest, dealing with pieces of the Holy Cross that Jesus was crucified on, takes us on a grand adventure in many wonderful cities - As a Greek Orthodox Christian, was glad there were many accurate descriptions of different sites and priests - even the Patriarch in Constantinople - Also my name is deals with Helen and Constantine, so I was more tweeked with curiosity . The only thing I didn't like, and this was due to translation issues, is they especially at the beginning kept calling our churches as temples - Some folks still think we worship Zeus in temples, and in the translation the word church was printed as temple - but if that's the greatest thing wrong with this book no prob. Also beware, the chapters are 40 pages+ or so - This is a wonderful book filled with adventure, history, romance, and just about everything that makes you pick up a book and read it - This is definitely worth reading!!!!!!!!!
I have a bias toward novels with elaborate scholarly puzzles in them, so when find out from a book jacket that the protagonists are going to decode Dante and track down the True Cross, I am full of anticipatory pleasure as we plunge into Codices and Byzantine history and archaeological digs. But ultimately I can't recommend the book. I'm willing to suspend a lot of disbelief for this kind of thing, but ultimately Ms. Asensi just asks too much.
I'm not even talking only about how vast in scope and flawless in execution this previously undetected age-old conspiracy has to be, or how they are supposed to get Universal Studios-style special effects with Graeco-Roman technology. I can grumble about that, but I can live with it if I have to.
But even more unbelievable is the social psychology of it all. Do you believe, for example, that it's possible to develop a series of physical and mental ordeals such that "those who pass them [are] incapable of doing gratuitous, senseless harm"? If that were so, wouldn't the Green Berets be going around doing good like Franciscan monks? It's not a problem for it if a character believes such things, but it gets to be a problem when the author does.
Throughout the book, people act like nobody would really act, both on an individual level and as collectives and institutions. I'm talking not only about the adventurer protagonists -- I'm talking about the Vatican itself, which supposedly wants them to find "the answer" and would rather they not die halfway through, but when it comes down to it is repeatedly content to send them off to hunt like so many ferrets sent down a badger hole and wait passively for their return.
At one point, for instance, the protagonists are stuck in what amounts to a hedge maze. Nobody has thought to bring in a cell phone, or a GPS locator, or a satellite photograph of the area. They could have. Nobody on the outside apparently feels like doing anything to make sure they aren't dead, like looking for them with a helicopter (they HAVE helicopters). For some reason, everybody is "sticking to the rules", as if Salina and company were out for a day of orienteering or something. And the whole book is like this. Of course we all realize that the author wants us to concentrate on the puzzles and challenges, and that it might be a poor piece of fiction if they just blasted through everything with rock drills and the Air Force and so on, but you have to have some plausible reason why people act as they do, don't you?
I know what has happened here, really - the author has gotten overly focused on the intellectual problems involved; she has worked hard to create a set of puzzles and she thinks that by doing so she has done all the work she really has to. But I disagree. Creating a novel is a puzzle of a different kind - somehow you have to put the pieces together in a way that makes the reader think that this sort of thing might really happen. (Leaving aside obvious fantastic/allegorical fiction, that is.) I don't think Ms. Asensi devoted nearly enough attention to this last step.
But the best thing is that you will even like her, and will not be able to stop reading till the book is finished.
Just try. I have read 4 of Asensi's novels (all in spanish), and I think this one is the best of them. Recommended.
Dr. Ottavia Salina, a brilliant and noted paleographer is a nun, a member of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She holds a doctorate in paleography and art history along with numerous other academic titles and is the Director of the Vatican's Classified Archives. So she possesses quite a pedigree and is a spunky lady to boot. The powers that be in the Vatican, including the Pope, order Sister Ottavia to investigate a series of bizarre crimes and the details surrounding the episode(s).
A small rented Cessna had crashed into Mt. Helmos, on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece. Among the dead is an Ethiopian passenger, Abi-Ruj Iyasus. The man's body is covered with tattoos, or scarifications, which include Greek letters, crosses and other symbols. Mr. Iyasus was apparently involved in the theft of priceless, sacred relics, pieces of the True Cross, and Dr. Salina is ordered to analyze and decipher the symbols found on his corpse. She is assigned to help solve the mystery of the theft and to recover the stolen relics. Assisting her is Captain Kaspar Glauser-Roist, a seemingly sinister type who is a member of the Swiss Guard and allegedly the Vatican's "black hand." He is also a hunk. Another expert involved in the investigation is Professor Farag Boswell, an atheist with a Coptic Christian background from the ancient city of Alexandria. He is the grandson of the man who discovered the Byzantine City of Oxirrinco, and an archeologist in his own right with academic credentials as noteworthy as the Sister's. Although eccentric, which makes for a better read, he is another a hottie. (All this sexiness...and in a book about religion too!!!)
Yes...a secret society is involved in the storyline - this one called The Staurofilakes, (not the Opus Dei this time around), which is headed by a "Cato." The trio of amateur sleuths discover that the key to finding the whereabouts of the Staurofilakes, the True Cross, or at least splinters of it, and to achieve "earthly paradise," lies within the text of Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy." The tests they must pass in order to move forward in their search is kind of like a board game, and like many board games the process becomes repetitious.
As I wrote above, the historical aspect of the novel is interesting. Character development is nil, but this is a plot driven historical mystery. I do wish writers would become inspired by another topic! This one is getting stale.
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