It would be easy to pass Matilde Asensi's The Last Cato off as another of the myriad Da Vinci Code clones flooding the book-market today. Unfortunately, since this book was published in Spain back in 2001 (well before the antics of Robert Langdon rocketed Dan Brown to the top of the bestseller lists), Asensi's work isn't quite as easily ignored. Published in English for the first time this year by Rayo (a HarperCollins imprint), The Last Cato is very much in the same genre as Da Vinci, The Rule of Four, and all the others which use classical literature to uncover modern-day misdeeds.
In this case, the misdeeds are a string of thefts from churches around the world - thefts of the various slivers and chunks of the "True Cross." The culprits: the mysterious Staurofilakes, a mysterical brotherhood charged with protecting the Cross when it was whole. But why are they now collecting the pieces? Answering that question becomes the job of an unlikely team: Ottavia Salina, a scholarly nun who works in the Vatican Archives; Kasper Glauser-Roist, a meaty Swiss Guard and Vatican "consigliere" (in the Godfather sense); and Farag Boswell, an ethnically-mixed archaeologist from Egypt.
The trio set off on a bizarre but entirely expected quest through the route that aspiring Staurofilakes must take to prove themselves worthy of the honor. Their road map? Dante Alighieri's Purgatorio, which contains the clues they need to make their way from city to city and survive the challenges that await them there. Dante, you see, was himself one of these Staurofilax characters (although how no one ever noticed the sect's ritual scarifications on him remains undisclosed), and using his text, Salina and the others go on their not-so-merry way, &c. &c. I won't say any more and spoil the plot, but you get the drift.
I must say that within this genre, The Last Cato is one of the better examples I've read. Unfortunately that's not saying all that much. While I found the fairly lengthy explications of early church history and True Cross lore somewhat appealing, it would be nice to know what's real and what Asensi's making up (the lack of a "Historical Note" is one of the major faults, even if it was nice to see her footnoting some of the various quotations she uses in the text). The writing and/or the translation is uneven, which creates some weird Spanishized Latin names that haven't been rendered back into English, along with a few rough patches of dialogue. I had (very) high hopes that the heroine's religious status would preclude the obligatory romantic subplot, but alas, it's here.
All in all, not an awful book (and perhaps slightly better than Da Vinci Code), but that's as far as I'll go.