2012; 268 pages. Book 2 (out of 2) in the Dr. Steven Archer Cross series. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Action-Thriller ; Suspense; Conspiracies; Puzzle-Solving. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
They had one job.
To guard an insignificant canister (about the size of a thermos) that’s in a secret room inside a sleepy, nondescript abbey in Italy. It should've been an easy task for three heavily-armed commandos – one inside the room, one outside its door, and one on the grounds of the abbey. It doesn't matter that they’ve never been told what the canister holds.
The job's not new; it's been going on for four centuries now, and no one's ever tried to steal the object. After a while, even the best-equipped protectors can let down their guard just a tad. Take a short nap. Listen to music on an iPod. There's never any excitement.
Until tonight, when someone somehow has stolen the canister. And now the Order of the Holy Relic, who own and occupy the abbey, who hired these guards, and who have been entrusted by the Pope himself to safeguard the canister’s mysterious contents, are in a high dudgeon over the theft.
And when you steal from the Church, there’s going to be hell to pay.
What’s To Like...
The storyline of The Voynich Cypher is built around a real document called the Voynich Manuscript, and which can be justifiably called the "Holy Grail of Cryptography". You can read the Wikipedia article about it here. The story's structure is very similar to that of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: the Roman Catholic is guarding a centuries-old secret, somehow it gets compromised, our heroes unwittingly fins themselves in possession of the secret, and they spend the rest of the book going from place to place, solving riddle after riddle, getting ever closer to uncovering the cosmos-changing secret, while also trying to stay one step ahead of bad guys and other rivals.
For the most part, The Voynich Cypher takes place in various cities in Italy, and I was particularly impressed with the vividness with which Russell Blake portrayed that country. Maybe he’s lived there; in any event, it certainly didn’t feel like a Wikipedia cut-&-paste job. Our two protagonists, Dr. Steven Cross and Natalie Twain, are fun to tag along with, and there are enough thrills, spills, chases, and puzzles to keep the reader turning the pages.
The author lists the place and time settings for the first couple chapters at their start, which was quite helpful. I enjoyed the (obligatory) Knights Templar tie-in, and was pleasantly surprised by the brief nod to Mithraism, a long-forgotten religion. Russell Blake blends the historical background of the Voynich Manuscript into the story in bits and pieces. To a certain extent, this felt like an info dump, but I suppose it was necessary, since most readers will be unacquainted with it. The author apparently doesn’t think much of tattooed Goth girls, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, and I got a chuckle out of that.
I’m a big fan of situational ethics, so I was intrigued by the stealing of the “secret”. Despite the excitement which ensues, I couldn’t help thinking that ultimately the Church had every right to try to recover the property that was stolen from it. Curiously, the storyline sides with the thieves (the secret is said to be “liberated”, not “stolen”), and at times I found myself rooting for the agents of the Church to foil our heroes.
The ending is adequately exciting, though not overly spectacular. It had one interesting plot twist, but I was expecting it, since the reader knows all of the bad guys have to eventually be accounted for. Some of the baddies are dispatched with a bit too providentially. Ultimately, nothing in the world changes, but that sort of letdown is inherent with any book in this genre, including The Da Vinci Code.
There are 42 chapters covering the 268 pages, which works out to roughly 6 pages per chapter. The R-rated stuff is mostly cusswords, plus a couple of adult situations. The number of secondary characters felt “just right” to me; not too many, not too few. The Voynich Cypher is a standalone story, as well as the second book in a series. It was published in 2012, and Russell Blake has never since added another installment to the series. Inquiring minds would like to know why.
Kewlest New Word ...
Dispositive (adj.) : relating to or bringing about the settlement of an issue (such as the disposition of property). (Heh. I thought it was a goofy way of saying “negative”.)
Others : Dongle (n.).
“I think it’s him. I trailed him from the flat. I wish we had some photos so we could be sure,” the man muttered into the mouthpiece between puffs.
“We’re trying to get access to the motor vehicle database for a license photo, but there’s nothing else I’ve been able to find. The man obviously isn’t much for social media. Pity. Facebook’s made everything easier…” (loc. 1618)
“Where have you been? It’s like you’re miles away. Hello…”
“I’m sorry. I’m probably still tired, as well as a little surprised by …well… by this.”
“Are you complaining?”
“No. Quite the opposite. I mean it’s-“
“If you find my company too distracting, we can always go back to being platonic colleagues,” she offered.
“I’m not sure that would work,” Steven countered.
“It had better not.” (loc. 3424)
“That’s the price of a soul these days? I would have sold mine a long time ago if I’d had any idea you could get that kind of money for one.” (loc. 4533)
There are some quibbles. All the characters are predominantly black or white; I like gray characters. I felt there were a couple of missed opportunities for thrills and spills, most notably the demises of a pair of the “white-hat” secondary characters.
There were one or two showing/telling issues, although not to where it got annoying. And the author and his editors never could decide whether it’s a “duffel bag” or a “duffle bag”. (Hint: it’s “duffel”.)
But I pick at nits. Overall, The Voynich Cypher kept my interest from start to finish, and didn’t strain the limits of believability, like some Action-Thriller do. If you're looking for something to satisfy your "Dan Brown" itch, this book will do the trick nicely.
8 Stars. Subtract 2 stars if you don’t like books that are knockoffs of bestsellers like, say, Jurassic Park, Sherlock Holmes, Fifty Shades of Grey, or The Da Vinci Code. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I personally like such derivative efforts, provided they are well-done.