Imagine a decent textbook relating some of the less well-known events of the 17th century—the Thirty Years War, Oliver Cromwell, the Spanish Treasure ships, book-binding for fun and profit—add an old Dan Brown novel treatment and the script to National Treasure VII and stir well. After half-baking, turn the plot over an antique salver and serve. Voilá! Ex Libris by Ross King.
Is it a bad book? Well, I would say “No” because the author dishes out a great deal of historical data: enough that I have put the Thirty Years War and Oliver Cromwell on my reading list. But King uses the historical data (real or fictional) to weave an intricate story of intrigue centered on a missing text that would presumably have bumfuzzled the Pope and made all of Christianity cattywampus. Or at least that was the illusion the reader received from all the action in the book.
The author has chosen to interleave two related stories in his novel. The first is that of a somewhat unassuming bookseller who is dragged into the intrigue. The second is the events during the war in Europe to save the naughty books describing the black arts from the destruction of Rome. At times the shift from one age to decades later is slightly confusing but after a while, the length of the sections allows the reader to stay on course.
About three-quarters of the way through the novel there is a big reveal which, in my opinion, came close to creating another dent in my wall as I hurled the book across the room. Fortunately, I was reading the text on my iPhone and I wasn’t upset enough to fling my smartphone at the bricks. Without giving it all away, I will just comment that the reward for all the action, adventure, and intrigue, was a big Emily Litella moment.
I read on and when the final revelation came … when the secret knowledge was exposed … when a turning point in the history of life on earth could no longer be kept a secret … it was pretty lame. Oh, back in 1700 it might have caught a few imaginations but we’ve been to the moon and back so readers in the 21st century have a different perspective than fictional characters in the 17th century.
But to rush the novel to its epilogue, the author turns to a ludicrous denouement that involves a mad-dash escape through the catacombs and the manor house accompanied by the mistress of the house (and amateur chemist) explaining the details of the mystery even while the ceilings are falling down on them and the red-stained waters are ruining the rugs. I suppose this will be handled by a voice-over if they ever make the movie. Then straight out of Edgar Allen Poe and National Treasure 2, the waters from the pond in the garden (which must have rivaled the North Sea) crash into the house, destroying it from the inside. As the manor house crumbles, great chasms are opened by the on-rushing water and the house, gardens, and all the bad guys are lost as they tumbled beneath the ground (just like when the volcano erupts in every B-Adventure movie you’ve ever seen).
Let’s just say that this is one of those novels that spends a lot of time tricking you into the details and then the deux ex machina flies in to finish everything off. Entertaining to some extent but obviously flawed.
Still, the author historically really knows his stuff and I might try one of his other titles. If you are also interested, here is the bibliography from Wikipedia:
- Domino (1995)
- Ex-Libris (1998)
- Brunelleschi’s Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence (2000)
- Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (2002)
- The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism (2006)
- Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power (2007)
- Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven (2010)
- Leonardo and the Last Supper (2011)