April 21, 2006

Book Review: The Last Cato by Matilde Asensi

It's very tempting for me to write a scathing review of this book. I could rant about The Da Vinci Code-esque revisionist church history, and incite Christians everywhere to protest the book. But I won't, for a few reasons.

One - like I could get more than a dozen Christians to actually listen to me, much less do what I want them to. Two - the book's good.

The premise: there is a secret society -- similar to the legendary Grail Knights -- tasked with protecting the True Cross, on which Christ was crucified. They have infiltrated every part of the Church all over the world, protecting the fragments of the Cross that have been strewn all over Christendom, with one goal: To bring them all back together, under their control.

The book begins with a series of robberies, and a mysterious corpse. Pieces of the True Cross are being stolen, and the corpse is one of the thieves. He bears intricate body art -- ritual scarification, the result of his induction into the mysterious group known as the Staurofilakes -- the protectors of the Cross.

Vatican paleographer Ottavia Salina is called on to help investigate the crimes, and bring the Staurofilakes back into fellowship with the Catholic Church - by force, if need be. Accompanied by a member of the Swiss Guard and an atheistic professor, she begins her investigation. Aided by clues provided by Dante's Divine Comedy, they move closer and closer to the mysterious group - even as they receive the very same ritual scars as the dead thief.

There is a growing sub-genre of religious fiction - the skeptical, gnostic-based thriller novel. The Da Vinci Code is, of course, the most famous example of this genre, and is responsible for its popularity today. The Da Vinci Code, though, was originally published in 2003, though -- The Last Cato was originally published in 2001, in Spanish. So this is not an example of an author jumping on the bandwagon. It's a wonderfully written story, with healthy doses of skepticism toward religion. The skepticism is not heavy-handed -- in most cases, it's mentioned in passing, with no 'proselytizing' as Dan Brown tends toward in his book. Readers would be well-advised to get a copy of The Divine Comedy as a reference as they read this book, but the important passages are quoted in the book, so that's not essential. You'll never read Dante the same way again, I can promise you that.

Characterization in the book isn't overt or heavy-handed, but by the end you feel like you really know these three people. You sympathize with Ottavia's struggles and her anguish over the direction her life seems to be taking her. By the end, you're pondering the irony in her statement that "Life doesn't drag you along if you don't let it."

One minor quibble with the book, or actually the translation. Latin names are often mishandled, it seems. Eusebius is left Eusebio, for example, almost as if the Spanish name had been left alone, rather than being translated to the proper Latin name. A minor detail, at best, but it did grate on the church historian in me to see familiar names rendered incorrectly.

One reason I would start a protest over the book is that the result of such action seems clear - people will read the book to see what all the fuss is about. And this is a book that deserves to be read. And it didn't borrow anything from Holy Blood, Holy Grail. That in itself deserves high praise indeed. I didn't read The Da Vinci Code, but if this is the type of book publishers are picking up because of Dan Brown's success, then we owe him thanks. Just remember that the book was written two years before Brown's book, and you'll enjoy it even more.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 03:54 PM | Comments (7) | Add Comment
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1 Sounds quite interesting - I'm putting it on my wish list or reminder list (depending on if there are any copies currently posted) at PaperBackSwap.com!

Posted by: songstress7 at April 22, 2006 01:05 AM (0zDjn)

2 Unfortunately, it won't be out in paperback for quite a while -- it was just released in English in hardback. Unless there's a Spanish paperback out there, and you can read Spanish.

Posted by: Warren at April 26, 2006 03:26 PM (DPRNU)

3 Great review. I've just picked up THE LAST CATO and --so far-- it seems it's going to be a good read. Already I've caught Aseni in an historical error concerning the "chi-rho" monogram. She claims on one page that its wasn't used after the 6th Century, and on the next page she says it declined in use by the end of the 5th Century. She not only contradicts herself but she is wrong on both the dates. For example, the "chi-rho" is emblazoned on the shields of Justinian's guard-attendants in the mosaics of San Vitale, Ravenna (circa 547 A.D.). The monogram can also be found in the 8th Century Irish "Book Of Kells." By the way, when are you going to delete all of the spam posted above?

Posted by: Caesar Warrington at June 23, 2006 10:17 AM (M0BDa)

4 What spam? And I did notice that she got the chi-rho wrong, though I hadn't gone back and determined the actual dates.

Posted by: Warren at June 23, 2006 10:38 AM (DPRNU)

5 As soon as I read her comments the shields of and standards of Justinian's guards and Belisarius' troops came to mind. Are there any other historical/theological mistakes I should be on the lookout for?

Posted by: Caesar Warrington at June 23, 2006 03:35 PM (M0BDa)

6 Dear Blogger: An ancient prophecy, shrouded in secrecy for thousands of years predicts the arrival of the “Expected One,” a woman who is destined to deliver Mary Magdalene’s gospel, and with it, one of history’s most powerful revelations. On July 25th, Touchstone Books releases a highly anticipated and controversial debut novel by Kathleen McGowan called The Expected One, based on the gospels of Mary Magdalene. As a member of the blogging community, Touchstone is thrilled to be offering you a free promotional copy and an incredible opportunity to interview Kathleen McGowan--the woman behind the book heralded as “riveting” by People magazine. Though The Expected One is a novel, many of the protagonist’s adventures and virtually all of her spiritual encounters are inspired by the real life experiences of McGowan. As she writes in her afterword, McGowan experienced a series of haunting, recurring dreams that centered on the events and experiences of The Passion, which led her to research the legends of Mary Magdalene. From August 15th-17th, Kathleen McGowan will be taking time from her tour and media appearances, which include “Good Morning America,” “Paula Zahn Now,” and “The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch,” to chat directly with the blogging community. Although we would like to accommodate everyone, due to the limited period of time available, interviews will be granted on a first come, first serve basis. If you’d like to set up and interview and receive a promotional copy of The Expected One, contact Farrell Dubak at Farrell.Dubak@Simonandschuster.com. To learn more about The Expected One and Kathleen McGowan please take a moment to visit www.TheExpectedOne.com. Read an interview with Kathleen McGowan in USA Today!

Posted by: Farrell at July 25, 2006 10:36 AM (Rql8r)

7 Well done!

Posted by: Ryan at August 07, 2006 11:45 AM (y415J)

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