I’ve read a lot – and I really do mean a lot – of Voynich Manuscript-themed (and other genuine-historical-cipher-themed) novels over the years, and I have to say that the whole experience rarely gets any better than just-about-OK-if-there’s-nothing-much-on-TV. Yes, even with TV in the nadir-like pit it has winched itself down into these days.

Sad as it is, such novelists’ including-an-ancient-unbroken-cipher writing mechanism comes across to reflective readers as rather, I don’t know, desperate-and-wanting-to-be-loved (and doubtless someone will tell me an obscure German or Icelandic adjective to describe this more precisely). More precisely, it shouts out “please God, let importing some genuine real-world mystery be enough to distract attention from the countless plot flaws, the unconvincing characters, and the piss-poor writing“. And that’s before you’ve even got to page one.

At the same time, none of the above ever hurt Dan Brown, so why not press that button and see where it leads, eh?


Indeed, Michael Lancashire pressed that very button: and to his credit, his novel “The Voynich Deception” comes out of it basically an OK read. As the backdrop to his story, he has an unfeasibly clever guy (‘The Architect’) devising unfeasibly-clever-yet-still-oddly-micromanaged evil plans for ambitious crims to buy to execute. The rest of the plot involves a group of brutal, greedy and unlovable – though utterly uninvolving – Albanian gangsters following a blood-soaked trail of Voynich-linked cookie crumbs ever onwards towards a long-concealed treasure trove, where… well, that last bit would be telling, so my lips are sealed.

But at the same time, what I can say is that the structural weakness of “The Voynich Deception” is that while Lancashire’s ‘Architect’ is just an anti-Sherlock Holmesian conceit, the entire story pivots entirely on a single (admittedly fairly large) twist, one which the author flags very early on. As such, it’s more like a long short story than a novel: and for all the (occasional spatter of) blood ‘n’ gore, it does end up feeling a bit… thin.

Still, Lancashire is respectful towards the Voynich Manuscript (which is good), and he tells his story at a fair old pace, something far too many cipher novelists struggle with (hint: a fight they usually lose ignominiously).

The Kindle ebook version is only £1.99, so it’s not a huge investment or risk. And if you like The Voynich Deception, Lancashire has since written an Architect prequel novella (“Kernel Panic”) for you to move onto. All in all: not my tasse de thé, sure, but a perfectly OK read.

I read Robin Wasserman’s Voynich-themed young adult novel ages ago but never got round to reviewing it here…

Curiously, though, it has to be said that the Voynich Manuscript itself only ends up playing a relatively small part in the overall story: ultimately, most of the action revolves around the discovery & translation of a series of (fictional) letters to or from (the very real) Elizabeth Weston, Edward Kelley’s literary poetess stepdaughter, each of which gradually reveals details that move the teen gothic plot towards its nicely horrific conclusion.

In the modern novelistic style, Wasserman has the various ancient artefacts protected and sought (respectively) by a Conspiracy of Basically-Good and a Conspiracy of Basically-Evil: the teen novel conceit is that despite the ridiculously amplified level of peril surrounding the main character, she tends to trust wholeheartedly pretty much any drop-dead-gorgeous young hunk (from either conspiracy) who asks her to do anything.

From a Voynich researcher’s point of view, the good stuff about this novel is that it foregrounds a lot of the gritty historical stuff that people tend not to think about much – transcription, translation, cross-referencing, etc. Yet the bad stuff about it is that the way it mythologizes Europe and romanticizes Latin translation makes it feel like it was written for Lisa Simpson – several times I imagined Lisa clutching the book to her heart and exclaiming “She didn’t dumb it down for me!” (not unlike the “Mother Simpson” episode with Glenn Close).

The book was clearly not written with me in mind, so I don’t really want to dwell too much on its nitty gritty: but even so, I get the impression it would make a very much better teen film than a book. In short: one to option rather than to read! 😉

The relatively low level of interest in the Voynich Manuscript in Italy has long puzzled me, when to my eyes (and plenty of other people’s eyes too), it looks to be an artefact grounded in some obscure byway of Italian Quattrocento culture. Perhaps they’re just too busy worrying about the economy or where they’ll find a Prime Ministerial ego extraordinary enough to replace Berlusconi’s to really be that bothered about the Voynich’s centenary this year?

Anyway, I’ve just had a nice email from Anna Castriota telling me about a new Italian Voynich novel she recently stumbled upon by the name of “I Custodi Della Pergamena Proibita” (The Keeper of the Forbidden Parchment), allegedly written by a priest pseudonymously calling himself Aldo Gritti.

As is grimly conventional for this kind of thing, Gritti’s grittily gritty story kicks off with three near-simultaneous murders in Florence, London and New Haven, where (surprise, surprise) “the victims were about to reveal to the world the true, shocking content of the dark Voynich manuscript, which for a century had resisted every attempt to interpret it. But [Inspector Elda Novelli] will be able to decrypt it by following the tracks left by the three dead researchers“.

Apparently Gritti’s story features not only the Titanic and the secrets behind several notable deaths of the early 20th century, but also the final revelation of the Voynich’s real-life secrets, hidden there by, dan dan daaah, Wilfrid Voynich himself. [SFX: Rizzoli’s PR people chortling into their hands] *sigh*

Well… if Gritti’s tiramisu of tragedy didn’t tweak your tarpaulins tighter, here’s another one to curdle your Kindle. “Voynich: Il Segreto Del Barabba (il più grande segreto su Gesù)” by Barbara Cesa wraps a Voynich Manuscript story around a three-chord eternal-guardians-of-the-heretical-secret Barabbas-twin-brother-of-Jesus murderous-conspiracy-brotherhood plot. You can also buy the first ten chapters for 0.92 euros (it says here), though doubtless you’ll then be so eager for The Big Plot Twist at the end that you’ll gladly pay the balance to Find Out What Happens At The End.

Regular Cipher Mysteries readers will already know how I feel: that there’s a corner of my soul that seems to die a little whenever I read yet another dismal Voynich novel plot summary, as if I’m using up one of my spare Chrestomanci lives. One day, though, I’m sure I’ll read a truly great Voynich novel, that will make all this treacle-swimming retrospectively worthwhile…

I can dream, can’t I? 🙂

Here comes another book to add to my Big Fat List of Voynich novels: the just-about-released-any-day-now The Cadence of Gypsies by Barbara Casey. It has a fairly straightforward setup:

On her 18th birthday Carolina Lovel learned that she was adopted and was given a letter written by her birth mother in an unknown language. After years of research she travels to Italy on a mission to find the truth about her past.  Carolina is accompanied by three extremely gifted but mischievous  students the FIGs from Wood Rose Orphanage and Academy for Young Women.  In an effort to help their favorite teacher, the FIGs will have to use their special abilities to decipher the Voynich Manuscript, the most mysterious document in the world, and the one thing that is strangely similar to what Carolina was given. Their search will take them into the mystical world of gypsy tradition and magic, more exciting and dangerous than any of them could have imagined.

So… yes, it’s more Voynich teen fiction, continuing the mini-wave started by the sparky “That’s Life, Samara Brooks”. Enjoy!

OK, moving straight into confessional mode, I feel more than a touch ashamed that I haven’t reviewed Chris Harris’ Mappamundi loooong before now. But… even though I’ve read it twice, I still don’t really know what to say about it. Let me explain…

Sticking to the knitting, it’s a fairly trite starting point to note that it’s an historical adventure, with the main character Thomas Deerham seque(l)strated from the book “False Ambassador”.  In that first book, Harris had his hero travel from England to France to Greece (while trying to travel to the Holy Land) and onwards from there to Morea and finally back to Rome, meeting loads of interesting historical figures (such as Plethon) en route. “Mappamundi” continues in Rome with Deerham’s stealing a Toscanelli mappamundi from his only-just-dead boss (Pope Pius II), before heading fast away north across France. In Paris, he meets the vagabond / poet / trickster François Villon: they cross the Channel & end up in Essex trying it on with an eelwife (please don’t ask). Then they meet Christian Rosenkreutz (yes, really) and steal the Voynich Manuscript, which a thoroughly delighted Rosenkreutz calls one of the “Seven Tomes”. On from there to Cambridge, and Ipswich, and… off to find the lost wisdom of Atlantis, steered by the stars, the mappamundi, the VMs and Rosenkreutz’s clinical madness… and (without giving it all away) onwards from there.

Of all the Voynich novels I know of, you could reasonably argue that Mappamundi sticks closest to what we might expect of the VMs’ pre-1600 provenance. What with its Toulon-Occitan-like zodiac month names, and abbreviated longhand Latin quire numbering that Barbara B claims appears in a herbal rebound in England in the 15th century, and perhaps in England picking up its alleged connection with Roger Bacon; all these details tally reasonably nicely with Harris’ account, some intentionally, some not (I’d predict).

Of course, by now you’ll have worked out that Mappamundi is by no means an airport novel – the absence of (for example) millennia-long secret conspiracies, hidden mountains of ancient gold, mysterious powers over life & death that an unreadable book holds, but which only a Harvard Professor of Assyrian Stuff with eidetic memory can unlock, etc etc should be more than a bit of hint. Nor is it experimental literature (even though it plainly merges real historical figures with hallucinatory ones such as Christian RosenKreutz), nor even Umberto Eco-esque über-erudite historical musings masquerading as high literature.

Actually… when you strip it all back, it’s just a historical romp across Europe, in very much the same kind of line (and indeed roughly the same time-period) as Dorothy Dunnett’s well-known Niccolo Rising series. But whereas I alway got the feeling that Dunnett was trying not to re-write history but rather just to thread her own imagined saga through the countless empty holes in a genuine historical tapestry, the presence of Rosenkreutz and the VMs (and even Atlantis) in Mappamundi moves that book sideways into a rather less clear position.

I suppose what it all comes down to is that Harris’ admixure of the notoriously false with the notoriously uncertain with the manifestly true largely negates the effect of all his careful research: the reader stops trusting the author’s historical eye and empathy. Look, I’m not saying it’s as bad a pseudo-historical trip as Forrest Gump: but it did manage to consistently put me out of my readership comfort zone, which is something you could never accuse Dunnett of, for example.

The awful thing is that Harris’ book-writing craft is so spot-on in so many ways (I get to read countless books by authors whose skills aren’t a patch on his), which makes criticising him for what is only really a kind of implicit epistemological confusion foisted on his readers feel somewhat unjust. But many (if not most) of those same readers will likely have a keen eye for history, and that side of me really didn’t enjoy the ride here.

Ultimately, even though I’m supposed to balance up all these factors and finish the review by rotating my haughty Imperial thumb upwards or downwards, this time around I just don’t know what to do. I loved the Dorothy Dunnett side of it while simultaneously hating the Forrest Gump side of it (which included the ending): and it seemed to oscillate between these two extrema throughout. I guess you’ll have to read it for yourself and make up your own mind, sorry if that sounds like a cop-out. =:-o

Carrying on with (what is rapidly turning into) Cipher Mysteries BookFest ’10, I’ve had Bill Napier’s (2003) “Shattered Icon” on my list of Voynich-related novels for simply ages, so a review is somewhat overdue. Napier, a “Scottish astronomer who lives in Ireland and has a professorship in Wales“, was so engaged by rumours of a 16th century calendrical plot that he felt compelled to write a book about it. However, if you’re already expecting a stereotypically clunky “Domain Expert” novel, you’ll be pleasantly surprised – he writes pretty well, and has constructed a nice “parallel periods” opus out of his historical obsession.

Even though (as it turns out) this isn’t actually a Voynich novel nor even really a cipher mystery (the secrets are hidden by allusion rather than by cryptography), there’s still plenty of interest for Cipher Mysteries readers, such as a little bit about Bright’s Characterie (arguably the first modern shorthand). Perhaps more intriguingly, the calendar stuff that fascinated Napier so much is all to do with John Dee and his cunning 33-year leap day cycle (an elegant blend of maths, numerology and religion, because that was Jesus’ age when he was crucified, Dan Brown fans).

Having lived in the Caribbean myself for a while (though many years ago), I also rather liked the smattering of patois Napier slips in when the characters are hacking around Jamaica; and (in the parallel timeline) there’s a little bit of Elizabethan apothecary-based fun too. So there’s plenty of good stuff for a typical Cipher Mysteries reader to enjoy, and pretty much all of it dovetails properly into the overall story without too much frenetic plotting overkill.

OK, I’d be the first to admit that it’s far from perfect: most notably, I didn’t really buy into any of the main characters, nor even the modern conspiracy driving the plotline. Still, it’s a given that every book has faults: the issue is more whether the story manages to transcend those faults… and I think in this case, it really does. Though Max McCoy’s Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone, Matt Rubinstein’s Vellum, and Lev Grossman’s Codex are all arguably better books, “Shattered Icon” is a good read, one I recommend to you all. Even though it’s not strictly a cipher mystery! 🙂

In my opinion, cipher mystery-themed airport novels tend (as I wrote here a few days ago) to be written by (1) “Rack Pack” writers, (2) “Domain Experts”, or (3) “Wannabe Screenwriters”. Having read Steve Berry’s book “The Templar Legacy” (2006) as a warm-up, I recently moved on to his “The Charlemagne Pursuit” (2008), where the serial use of the main character ‘Cotton Malone’ places Berry firmly amongst the Rack Pack. But is he Rack the Knife or Rack the Hack?

The first thing I’d say is that The Charlemagne Pursuit is definitely put together far better than its predecessor, whose cardboard Bond-world characters such as ‘Cassiopeia Vitt’ (who it seems unfortunately reappears in later Cotton Malone books) and ghastly Templar clichés reduced the art of reading from a pleasure to a struggle. Really, compared with the sparky horses-in-the-New-York-museum start to Raymond Khoury’s “The Last Templar“, Berry’s The Templar Legacy remained ungrippingly pedestrian throughout.

All the same, The Charlemagne Pursuit is no less stuffed with airport mystery fodder – beautiful Nazi-family twin sisters, ancient architectural hints, buried clues, castles, Atlantis, Ahnenerbe, secret submarines, Voynich Manuscript-style documents, professional killers, unlikeable protagonist, etc. Yet what I found most frustrating is that if you stripped out all the history / lost civilizations / Nazi / mad admiral guff, the raw core of the story – Cotton Malone hunting down his dead submariner father, with surprising success – would be basically OK. And so I felt at the end that I’d read a decent-enough 100-page book ripped into a 600-pager by a sustained ingestion of airport novel steroids.

For sure, Berry’s book fully deserves its place in my Big Fat List as probably the highest-profile Voynich Manuscript novel yet: but the VMs is mainly treated as a kind of codicological template to help generate the various mysterious books Berry’s narrative requires along the way, rather than actually engaged with in any interesting or intriguing manner – not actually disdain, but certainly something close to disinterest. And perhaps it’s just me, but there’s also something just a bit desperate about his scattergun constructional style, which comes across not unlike a neurotic parent grabbing every soft toy in turn to try to placate an unhappy toddler. Ultimately, I’d rather read a book with half (if not less!) as many themes weaved together but explored in a more engaging way: but perhaps that’s a grossly unreasonable expectation of the genre, you’ll have to make up your own mind.

In summary, I did enjoy bits of it: but most of it came across as a Nazi-themed rollercoaster ride where you don’t care much for any of the twists and turns, let alone the characters.

Here’s something a bit unexpected: a teen novel built around school rivalries, DNA testing, the Voynich Manuscript and the Phaistos Disc. Due to come out in February 2010, could “That’s Life, Samara Brooks” be the first properly crossover Voynich-themed book to add to the Cipher Mysteries Big Fat List? I’ll be sure to get a copy along the way… and will let you know. 🙂

Incidentally, Google Books also returns a hit for “Voynich” in Frank Portman’s (2009) similarly-genred children’s book “Andromeda Klein“, but I suspect that the VMs will turn out to be less central to the plot there. Just in case there are any completist Voynich teen novel collectors out there. 🙂

Having just blogged on up-to-the-minute German Voynichiana, what of the rest of Europe? Here’s a quick sampling to whet your appetite, should you ever wish to feast on such morcels…

Having worked with Enrique recently (he generously translated my History Today telescope article so that it could appear in Astronomia magazine), I’m very much looking forward to the forthcoming English translation of his novel… even if I do still have to wait until June 2009. *sigh*

Elderly professor, Voynich manuscript, high-level Vatican/Jesuit conspiracy, corrupt cardinal, people learn of the VMs and then they get killed, how will it all end?, la-di-da.

Yes, once again it’s those pesky Templars and their accursed book (what, the VMs? Quelle surprise!) *sigh*

The VMs, the Philosophers’ Stone and quantum physics all get woven together here: though any Voynich book without evil Jesuit priests and lost Templar treasure will always move swiftly to the top of my list, who’s to say what this will be like? All the same, first-time novelists probably have more than enough things to worry about without lumping the weighty baggage of the VMs onto their camel’s back.

According to Dennis Stallings, Maugenest’s story describes how Roger Bacon wrote the VMs during his 13-year confinement – and how Bacon’s ideas are so powerful that anyone who now tries to read them falls into an irreversible coma. Hmmm… though I must confess that Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” did give me a headache for a week afterwards, Maugenest might just be stretching believability past its breaking point here. Oh well!

While adding categories to some old blog posts just now, up popped a mention of the Karlsruhe Virtual Katalog (KVK). I normally use KVK to find specific non-fiction holdings: but today I wondered what otherwise-unknown Voynich masterpieces it might be able to tell me about. At Dennis Stallings’ prompting, I’ve just started to add non-English Voynich novels to my Big Fat List, so this was a good opportunity to expand its scope in a rather more , errrm, “Teutonophile” direction…

What can 32.60 euroes buy you these days? Not a lot of explanation about the VMs, if the Amazon blurb for Roitzsch’s book is anything to go by. Somewhat unbelievably, its Unique Selling Point is that mainstream Voynich researchers will be eternally grateful for any insight readers might have into this mystery. Sadly, “condescending and hostile” might be a better prediction. Oh well. 🙁

Again, 19.90 euroes for a “Mystikthriller” might seem a little steep (particularly for those in the UK looking at the pound’s current 1:1 parity to the euro), but what the hey.  As with The Voynich Enigma, a Templar seal on the cover flags what you’re getting – a Euro-zone admixture of Church, Templar secrets, and (I’d predict fairly thin) cryptography. Ah, bless.

Alexander the Great, Persia, Voynich Manuscript, terrible secret, sexy archaeologist, Yale, bla bla bla. Sorry to be so immediately negative, but when will these people learn?

A bit of an oddity: 34 pages long, 8 euroes, a German-language magazine devoted to cryptozoology puts out an issue focusing on cryptobotany – and no prizes for guessing which bizarre manuscript is invited to the party. Might possibly be an interesting read – but I’ll admit to being somewhat skeptical.

The real curiosity of the day: a book describing the life and (odd) works a German mystic called Frederika Hauffe (1801-1829) whose convulsions and visions led to bizarre trance-like writing in both a “spirit language” and a “unique coded alphabet”. DeSalvo’s putative link between Hauffe and the VMs is anyone’s guess – but perhaps it would be worth having a look at his 224-page, pleasantly-affordable book. 🙂