The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason

When an ancient book's secrets drive people to obsession.

About The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason: The astonishing New York Times bestselling novel about two friends who find the key to a labyrinth that holds the secrets of an ancient text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. When a fellow researcher is murdered, they suddenly realize they are caught in a web of great danger.

My thoughts

The book in one sentence: The obsession to unravel the mysteries of an ancient book drives academics to mayhem, murder, and more.


These two Princeton grads could give Dan Brown a run for his money with this mystery-thriller-academic tome all rolled in one. Now if only I could understand what exactly The Rule of Four is.

I remember in one of my university  classes, I found myself nodding and absolutely hanging on to every word of my professor's lecture. I felt like I had  one of those mini "aha!" moments. I later found out that majority of the people in my class found that particular lecture exceedingly boring. The fact that I found it the exact opposite would have automatically labeled me a total nerd. So I decided to shut up about my mini epiphanies in that class so I could spend lunch with someone, anyone.

This is how I felt I should feel with this book. So while I got absorbed in it, I didn't have any "aha" moments as I really couldn't get into the details of the history of the Hypnerotomachia nor enjoy the the side stories of Princeton's elite and underground tunnels. I've heard people saying that they absolutely hated this book! I don't hate it, but for some reason I didn't fully enjoy it.


The story is told by Tom Sullivan, the son of a Renaissance scholar who was obsessed with deciphering the mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphii, a 15th century book whose secrets had allegedly claimed many lives. Tom's father was no different, withdrawing from life in general and dying in a car accident, so obsessed with the book that he was.

Swearing that he would not turn into his father, Tom leaves home for Princeton and starts his life with a clean slate. But the book would not leave him alone. Tom is quickly sought out by Paul Harris, another Hypnerotomachia scholar who knows he is the son of the Rennaisance scholar. With this new friendship, Tom's father's estranged contemporaries also return to his life - Paul's thesis adviser, Vincent Taft, and patron Richard Curry.

Tom finds himself sucked into the world of this ancient book. He is too weak to resist the puzzles the book presents and the two friends make amazing progress. Come senior year, the book becomes Paul's thesis. With much reminding from his girlfriend, Tom increasingly realizes that he is slowly turning into his father, going for days without sleeping. He forces himself to withdraw, realizing that he has his own thesis to finish, a girlfriend he is increasingly ignoring, and a life generally unlived.

But with the progress and precious secrets being unearthed, the fierce competition and professional jealousies heighten between Paul, his own thesis adviser and other Hypnerotomachia scholars. Until one night, murder. Will the Hypnerotomachia finally spill its secrets?


It is obvious that the authors have a love for the scholarly with the intense descriptions of the Hypnerotomachia. Yes, it's a real book, and yes, there are real studies about it. There are a few sections with lectures/conversations dwelling on the book, its history, complete with wood block illustrations. I wouldn't be surprised if the Hypnerotomachia was actually what the authors studied. Also, the academic jealousies and controversies told in the story are quite believable.

There is also a lot of Princeton culture and lore, which can at times sound a little snotty, even  holier-than-thou. Ok, already, we know the authors are from Princeton! But they can't help but rub our noses in a bit more with their descriptions of the elite clubs, their secret tunnels, and their streaking tradition. (Let's say that I can relate. My uni had its own version of the naked run of sophomores, and streaking male bodies is an annual event looked forward to by virgin eyes.)

The highlight of the book for me is obsession as it is explored by various people: The story of Tom's father, and now how Paul himself is realizing he is unwittingly turning into his father. And in the end, while Tom settles and decides for the easier and well-travelled road, Paul becomes even more relentless. That Tom's own thesis was about Frankenstein, yet another story of obsession, is a nice little twist.

The book is for youthful tastes. I remember adoring books by Michael Crichton (the entire Jurassic Park) in college and tried re-reading them ten years later. Maybe if I had read this book as a college student, I would have flipped. Now it just sounds slightly pretentious.

First line: Like many of us, I think, my father spent the measure of his life piecing together a story he would never understand.

Last line: In Italy, the sun is rising.

Verdict: An engrossing but slightly confusing read, great for idealistic college students.

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall