In this debut novel, an American graduate student in Rome is drawn into a world of intrigue and occult religion after a famous geneticist mysteriously disappears.
Michael Malavolti is a physics major at the University of Chicago, but when he learns that his family line traces back to affluent aristocrats in medieval Italy, he enthusiastically decides to pursue a doctorate in Renaissance studies. As part of his thesis, he tracks his genealogy back to ancient Siena, which inexplicably attracts the attention of Federico Sisti, a well-known genetic researcher working at a Rome university. As soon as Michael arrives in that city, homicide detective Vivianna Giuseppe gives him grim news: Sisti has vanished, and his office has been burglarized and vandalized—with the ancient name of Satan scrawled on a whiteboard in blood. Meanwhile, members of the Ordo are keeping tabs on Michael’s every move; it’s a secret organization that dates back to the 19th century and blends a fanatical devotion to occult religion with a desire for “world domination and control.” Michael begins to suspect that he’s being followed and slowly pieces together the reasons why, uncovering a revelation about the origins of the three Abrahamic religions that could change the world. Author Malavolti, who shares his protagonist’s surname, ably blends an imaginatively revisionist account of ancient biblical history with a contemporary mystery. He also develops a fine potential romance between Michael and Vivianna. Unfortunately, many of the story’s other elements are derivative of a familiar, Da Vinci Code–style formula—there are esoteric holy relics (and even a man known as “the Relic Hunter”); an ancient, evil order looking to tyrannize the globe; and an unassuming academic who tries to save the world. The plot becomes increasingly convoluted as it goes on, requiring pages and pages of granular historical commentary to make sense of it. Finally, the prose style is earnestly melodramatic, as when Michael declares, when confronted with a mystery, “I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”
An inventive spin on biblical history that’s undermined by shopworn tropes and overwrought prose.